The need to accommodate those who are not blessed with perfect health is a common concept. Buildings have handicapped spaces nearer entrances, ramps for those of us in wheelchairs, special bathroom accommodations for the mobility impaired, braille on signage – we are accustomed to seeing things that make life that much easier for those of us who live life a little bit different. Handicapped people want to live their lives with as little hindrance as able-bodied people, but it’s up to those of us who can to make sure this is possible.
Not only is assisting handicapped persons the right thing to do, it’s also the law in the United States – and guess what? This extends to the web world as well. This law is known as the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and is what ensures businesses have those blue-edged spots in their parking lots.
The world is much more digital than it was even 20 years ago. Businesses have become comfortable helping the handicapped in their brick-and-mortar spaces, but now are faced with a new set of challenges: How do business owners ensure that, say, a blind person can access their site and consume the content? How about having a deaf or hard-of-hearing visitor on a site that is largely audio clips or videos? How does one even know if this applies to them and their business?
Who Needs to be Compliant?
Not everyone needs to abide by these rules. Even if you don’t need to conform to the ADA, it’s still a nice goodwill gesture to provide some means by which handicapped persons can continue to use your site/service.
To make it simple, any business with at least 15 full time employees operating for more than 20 weeks annually has to comply with these measures. Any businesses that might offer public accommodation – such as hotels, transportation, and banking institutions – need to comply with ADA standards and regulations. If you have questions about the fine print of the ADA or the extent to which you need to comply, consult a disability lawyer.
What Does Compliance Look Like?
What complicates things for web admins is that very question. The ADA does not have a clear-cut list of things that make a website “compliant.” What you can do is follow the example of other websites that are at least making an effort to be accessible.
Covering Your Bases
Disabilities come in many flavors, and not all of them are perceptible. A person with a visual disability might need something like a screen-reader to read aloud what the site says. A hard-of-hearing person may need subtitles on videos or a transcript of a podcast.
Many disabled persons will use their own technology to help them navigate the internet. Ensuring that these devices work on your site could look like a cleaner, more organized layout. Some of these technologies read the base HTML of a site, so using markup tags like schema, HTTP headers such as content-language, and alt tags are all quality ideas.
Additionally, if you have anything that requires user input (like a form), having a secondary means by which a disabled person can input and submit the same information – or at least a recommendation on how they might do so – also falls under ADA compliance.
Failure to Comply
You can choose to do everything under the sun to comply with the ADA, or you can do absolutely nothing. I’m not saying that your website will be found and scrutinized by disability lawyers, but there’s always a chance that will happen. Depending on where you live, you could be paying up to $50,000 in expenses should you be handed down a ruling. Again, it’s probably the right thing to do to provide some special treatment to those who need it anyway, but the incentive of a huge fine is certainly some nice motivation.
In addition to the fines you may incur, you’re also losing business by not helping these people view your content or product. Being a hearing-impaired person myself, I know that I’m much less likely to visit restaurants and bars to watch a game if there are no subtitles on the screen.
But Most Importantly, Be Kind
The most significant takeaway from the struggle with ADA compliance is that not everyone experiences life the same way. There’s a whole myriad of people out there and should we be fortunate enough to have a “normal” set of abilities, we need to look out for those who live life with a bit more difficulty.