In mid-2018, 15 wineries in New York were sued for discrimination against the visually impaired. The lawsuits, all originating from one plaintiff in Brooklyn, claim that the websites of the wineries are insufficiently accessible for those with visual-related disabilities. While it is too early to tell if the lawsuit will lead to settlement or worse penalties for the named wineries, it certainly set off a panic among New York wineries and the broader wine industry. The big question: What does it take to make a website ADA-compliant, to improve website accessibility and prevent against possible litigation?
For context, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed in 1990 to prevent discrimination against those with a broad range of handicaps. Historically this applied to situations at brick and mortar locations to ensure those with handicaps could easily move around the location (i.e. wheelchair ramps, et). However, in the last decade ADA-related lawsuits have started moving into the digital realm.
Previously, an ADA-related lawsuit related to accessibility on websites only targeted major retailers and utilities like bank and energy websites. It makes sense that these high-traffic websites need to cater to every audience possible, as the inability to properly use a banking site could plausibly lead to true financial loss for the user. However, it was unheard of for a small mom & pop business website to be targeted, yet that is exactly what started happening in 2017 and 2018. It is the general feeling amongst those targeted that the majority of the ADA-lawsuits targeting small business websites are unfairly litigious, with plaintiffs eager for a quick settlement from small businesses unwilling or unable to fight the charges. The guidelines about what makes a website ADA-compliant are very ambiguous, and current lawsuits appear to take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the topic. There is conflicting information about which types of companies even need to have websites that are ADA‐compliant… courts have been all over the board on that matter.
ADA-compliance aside, there is good argument for a website to be easy to use by any type of user. We’ve outlined some of the best practices below that can be followed to both help with user experience and ADA-compliance.
First, a statement on the matter from California law firm DP&F: “Currently, there are no federal guidelines for how to make a website ADA compliant. The Department of Justice had contemplated adopting a new rule to outline how private companies’ websites can comply with the ADA. But in 2017, the department decided to halt its proposed rulemaking activity on this front. Although the DOJ failed to issue guidance on website accessibility requirements, the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards organization, has published coding standards for accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, often referred to as WCAG 2.0 AA. While there is nothing in federal law that states that implementation of WCAG 2.0 AA automatically means a website is ADA compliant, the complaints filed against the New York wineries all seek relief that would require the wineries to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA. Moreover, the DOJ has previously argued in ADA enforcement actions that companies can comply by making their websites and mobile apps conform to WCAG 2.0 AA standards.” -DP&F, Attorneys at Law
The above statement underscores the ambiguity surrounding the matter. As the statement points out, following WCAG 2.0AA is a solid first step. We also recommend two other steps in reaching ADA-compliance:
Some essential tenets of WCAG 2.0 (an incredibly lengthy and confusing document in itself) include the following:
Use a Text Alternative for all non-text Content: Any image on the website needs to have a “text-alternative”. This “alt-text” is fairly simple to add to images in most website builders and simply means attaching a description of what the image is about to the image itself. If for some reason the image doesn’t load, the alt-text will display instead. More importantly, if the user is using assistive technology to have the contents of the site read to them, the technology will read the Alt Text on the image to describe to the user what it is.
Use Good Color Contrast: The guidelines state that the presentation of text and images should have a contrast ratio of 4.5:1. In other words, ensure that the text of the fonts are not too similar to the background color and are very easy to read.
Keyboard Functionality: The guidelines request that “all functionality of the content is operable through a keyboard interface without requiring specific timings for individual keystrokes.” With the help of the Accessibe plugin (see next), this should be fairly easy to achieve.
Regardless of ADA-compliance, these are general best practices when designing a website anyway. A strong user experience for all audiences is definitely in the best interest of any online business.
One could argue that strictly following the WCAG 2.0 standards stifles design creativity and leads to websites that all look generic and boring. Winery websites in particular tend to favor small, elegant fonts that convey exclusivity and scarcity… must these websites suddenly morph into a large-print medium that ignores brand standards? Since 98% of websites online don’t fully adhere to WCAG 2.0 , ATAG 2.0 , ADA , & Section 508 requirements, should the entire internet shut down? Of course not.
We believe a winery can still have a creative website while catering to a visually-impaired audience with the help of Accessibe. These plugin was developed to increase compliance with WCAG 2.0 , ATAG 2.0 , ADA , & Section 508 requirements. The plugin can be installed into any website and will display a little accessibility icon in the corner of your website (see it for yourself in the bottom left of this Vinbound Marketing website). Anyone that needs assistance reading your website just clicks this icon and it pops up a full slate of accessibility options, giving the user the ability to increase the font size, change color contrast, make the cursor larger, read the page contents, etc. This is an amazing solution, as you don’t need to totally redesign your website at all… you just install this plugin and the user now has much more control in changing how the website appears.
There is an entire cottage-industry that has appeared in the last few years to monetize from ADA-compliance. Companies charge thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to audit websites for ADA-compliance and suggest needed changes. While these services may be a good match for a large corporation building a major utility-based websites (i.e. banking), it is way beyond the means of small businesses looking to build a simple, beautiful website. For smaller businesses, Accessibe offer automated accessibility audits and everything needed to cater to a visually-impaired audience while still allowing for complete creative control in the website design.
The plugin is $490/year (as of mid 2021) and is well worth this cost compared to the expense of being litigated. It just requires some technical knowledge of where to insert code on your website. The ADA plugins can be installed on all major website platforms, including Squarespace and WordPress. Vinbound is happy to help you install the code on your website — just purchase your plan at Accessibe and then email us and we can get it installed for you.
Note: We also include Accessibe as part of our Complete Site Management and Partner Retainers packages.
We recommend having an accessibility disclaimer on your policies page that addresses steps you’ve taken to cater to the visually-impaired. Accessibe offers text content that you can use, and they provide it during the configuration process of the plugin. Again, if you need help installing the plugin or crafting this statement, contact us with the above form.
Note: Vinbound Marketing is not a legal expert. While these methods are intended to help comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we can’t guarantee that they will prevent a winery (or any business with a website) from being sued. This article was written to provide some context around the ADA-compliance issues and a possible solution (Accessibe). This blog post is made available for general informational purposes only and none of the information provided should be considered to constitute legal advice.
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