Website accessibility compliance: learn more about regulations and how to avoid litigation

29 September 2021 - Last Updated: 29 September 2021 By: Jorge Martins Accessibility

Summary

Accessibility is more than just ensuring all audiences can properly and readily consume your website content. Organizations that don’t comply with accessibility regulations face serious risk of litigation. This article explains what these regulations are and how your website can be 100% compliant to them.

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After years of activism, lobbying and advocacy, there are now several accessibility laws, regulations, and mandates outlining practical ways to be more inclusive to those with disabilities. However, as the owner of a small or medium business or non-profit, ensuring that you’re compliant with these laws can be overwhelming.

So, we’re breaking down the three most common regulations you’ll come across when making your website as accessible as possible.

The ACA – Accessibility Canada Act

This federal Canadian accessibility law came into effect in July 2019. It aimed to create a society where people of all abilities have equal access to public and virtual spaces, such as websites.

Currently, the law applies to three types of organization: government bodies (e.g., The CAF, Parliament and Police), sectors regulated at the federal level (such as banking and telecommunications) and state-owned enterprises or “crown corporations” (those that are owned nationally but are under private management).

Failure to comply with ACA regulations can lead to penalties of up to $250,000 for more severe violations. However, there is no official investigation protocol for these violations. Instead, the process is expected to be mediated through other complaints and regulatory bodies.

The law requires companies to submit their own compliance reports outlining their accessibility plans and strategies and their progress towards meeting accessibility goals. But again, the ACA lacks definitive guidelines for accessibility and defers to the WCAG 2.1, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.  

The WCAG 2.1 – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The guidelines in this document have become the gold standard for implementing web accessibility. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created this set of standardized protocols, not any government. However, these rules have been adopted globally by governmental and regulatory bodies. The WCAG 2.1 bases its accessibility practices on four main principles, determining that all web content should be:

Perceivable

Users should be able to perceive content via a range of channels, for example, via the use of text readers.

Operable

Users should be able to engage the site’s functionality with ease. For example, those exclusively using keyboards to access material should not face obstacles.

Understandable

Users should be able to comprehend content, which means using clear instructions, consistent and predictable functionality, and accessible language.

Robust

A website must comply with web design standards while being compatible with current versions of assistive tools without difficulty.

While it has no enforcement power, the WCAG is a framework for regulatory and legal bodies. In Canada, for example, the ACA monitors the web accessibility of specific organizations, measured against the WCAG standards. Other province-level accessibility laws also use the WCAG as their benchmark.

The ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act

Arguably the most influential accessibility law in the U.S., the ADA of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability. It is also officially applicable to websites, which are considered “public accommodations” by the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, the ADA applies to large organizations and any business with more than 15 employees.

Since the WCAG 2.0 is not codified in law, businesses are not legally required to adopt their standards. However, the ADA and ACA forbid accessibility barriers that exclude those with disabilities. So, in effect, compliance with the WCAG is a valuable proxy for compliance with the ADA and ACA more generally.

Currently, there’s some flexibility in how business owners wish to build in more web inclusivity. Still, at Hafferi, we believe that voluntarily meeting WCAG standards not only makes good business sense but is the right thing to do. So we’re here to help you navigate the legal jargon and ensure you’re covered.

What do ADA, ACA, and WCAG have in common?

Each of the above is designed to ensure fair and equal access to online spaces for people of all abilities and competencies. Unfortunately, one in five of the world’s population has some form of disability. So, these code standards, inclusive design principles, and guidelines for web development enable those populations to use websites more efficiently.

When do companies have to comply with the rules?

Local and state government websites are required by law to be accessible to those with disabilities. Though there is some ambiguity, compliance with the WCAG is not mandatory for private businesses. Still, they must be accessible, and in this case, the WCAG is the best model for achieving that.

The ADA and ACA prohibit discrimination based on disability, and the DOJ confirms that this includes websites. Though the ADA does not contain any technical guidelines, they defer to those in the WCAG.

What are the risks of litigation?

Although there isn’t any centralized source of information on how many website accessibility lawsuits are filed every year in the U.S. or Canada, the trend in recent years is definitely upward. According to specialists, the increase in lawsuits since 2017 can be as big as 300%. Besides, out-of-court settlements can cost tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to businesses.

Simply put, being WCAG non-compliant places a business at an enormous risk of being sued, even if it’s not strictly illegal to be WCAG non-compliant. Since ADA civil lawsuits have been brought to non-compliant website owners, who have been ordered by the courts to make adjustments, it’s best to be prepared and take measures not only to protect your business but also to assist users with disabilities.

A win-win strategy for your business

Though navigating WCAG compliance can be daunting, an accessible website is also an SEO-friendly website, which is a win-win for your rankings. Forward-thinking business owners needn’t wait for a deadline to be proactive about accessibility. Instead, they can lead the way with business practices that simply do the right thing. At hafferi, we’ll work with you to ensure compliance while simultaneously expanding your market reach and optimizing your web performance.

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