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Understanding WCAG 2.1 Compliance

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were first developed at an industry summit and have been around since the late 1990s. They have routinely been the industry standard for web accessibility. In fact, WCAG compliance is considered to be the minimum standard by the American Disabilities Act (ADA.) The guidelines ensure that people who may be visually impaired, hearing impaired, or physically impaired can have the same access to the websites that populate the internet. As you can imagine, the WCAG has undergone a few different versions over the years but the newest version of these guidelines was published in June 2018 and was named WCAG 2.1.

The benefit of having an agreed upon list of guidelines is that there is an easy point of reference for web developers to work with. They help companies to understand what is required to meet the legal standards but also, and more importantly, these standards make each website a more enjoyable experience for visitors. It makes just as much business sense for companies to comply with the regulations that serve their disabled patrons. Web compliance providers will become increasingly important now and into the future in ensuring companies are best positioned to cater to everyone.

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Based on a recent wave of litigation—and the ensuing press and industry coverage—organizations around the globe are clambering to ensure their website is ADA compliant. Updating an existing site to make it compliant can be a painful and costly process, especially for smaller businesses on a tight budget. However when those costs are weighed against legal fees and potential court judgements, fixing a website is a much cheaper solution, in the long run.

The Internet brought a new wave of ADA concerns, with solutions which have not been fully defined. We know more and more of our daily interactions happen online, and that 19 percent of Americans (56.7 million people) have disabilities, many of which affect their ability to use the web. Because many companies’ core business is online, it has become increasingly important for them to stay in the know about how its accessibility (or lack thereof) can impact them legally. Before diving in deeper, let’s start by defining ADA Law.

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What is ADA Compliance?

While most businesses are aware of the ADA compliance protocols for their physical space — in large part because of building codes and inspections — most have no idea of the requirements for the digital aspects of their interaction with users.

With roots in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) was enacted in 1990. According to the National Network, it was designed to “prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public”. ADA law has changed significantly in the past 55 years, with the potential for more changes in the future.

Unfortunately,  the waters have always been muddy surrounding ADA website compliance. While there are agreed-upon standards, there aren’t inspectors and clear paths to remediate fines, as there are with physical spaces. Even the rules that do exist have never been as clear as they should be. Additionally, Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act to clarify the meaning and interpretation of the ADA definition of “disability” to ensure that it would be broadly defined, without extensive analysis. This creates even more potential for lawsuits.

What’s the risk?

As a company, if your website is not ADA compliant, you are in direct violation of Title III of ADA law. However, the majority of online interactions are not compliant (famously, the ADA’s site was badly out of compliance for years), which puts the social pressure squarely on the side of “don’t worry about it.”

That is changing. In 2013, there were roughly 2,700 Title III lawsuits, and 2018 was closer to 9,500—a 250+% increase in 5 years—with no sign of slowing down! Where the government is failing to take action, lawyers are stepping in, and, while some of these suits are clearly predatory, they’re also in the right.

Title III requires that owners of public places of accommodation give people with disabilities equal access to resources. Given that we live in 2019 and a great deal of business transactions occur online, the bar for online compliance should be higher, and companies who don’t meet basic standards are in violation, just as clearly if a company’s bathroom was too small to accomodate wheelchairs.

If you choose to ignore this, you’re definitely at risk of costly litigation.