By Deb Stewart
Is your website accessible? No? Not sure? Now may be the time to figure that out, as some banks and other businesses around the country are receiving demand letters and being targeted by legal claims for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
What does it mean for a website to be “accessible”?
It means that people with disabilities can use your website. And there are many types of disabilities that can make your website tough to use. These include:
- Being blind, color blind, or having low vision
- Being deaf or hard of hearing
- Having limited mobility or dexterity
- Having epilepsy
- Having a range of cognitive disabilities
How are your websites covered by ADA?
Financial institutions are considered “public accommodations” subject to Title III of the ADA and its implementing regulations. Title III requires public accommodations to provide:
- Equal access to goods, benefits, and services
- Auxiliary aids and services (e.g., accessible electronic information technology) at no extra charge to ensure effective communication absent undue burden or fundamental alternation
The Department of Justice (DOJ) administers the ADA, and will release specific standards for ADA compliance for websites in 2018 (or later).
Okay, but what about now? To find out more about DOJ’s current stance, we turned to Minh Vu, partner and ADA Title III team leader at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “In the interim,” she said, “they have informally interpreted the existing regulations to mean that websites need to be accessible to individuals’ disabilities, including those visually impaired individuals—many of whom use technology such as screen readers to read the content of websites to them. If a website is not coded correctly, a blind consumer will not be able to utilize the website. This has been the basis for many of the demand letters issued thus far.”
What requirements can you build to until the official DOJ guidelines come out?
Although no one knows exactly what standards the DOJ will enact, many industry experts expect that they will be based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, level AA (WCAG 2.0, level AA). There are many requirements included in these guidelines—see the box below.
How do you begin to take this on?
It’s a serious undertaking, but an important one. Here are some steps to consider:
- Commit to meeting a certain standard. (Consider WCAG2.0, level AA.)
- Audit your website for accessibility. Consider bringing in an expert for that audit.
- Train your website team. Make sure your in-house website team understands the anticipated standard (e.g., WCAG 2.0, level AA) and that bank management understands the current legal activity around this issue.
- Have your website development team implement changes to the website and revise processes for changing website structure and content.
- Include WCAG 2.0, level AA compliance in vendor contracts. You are responsible for content whether you have developed it in-house or not.
- Implement internal policies and procedures to ensure regular monitoring and auditing for conformance with WCAG2.0, level AA.
- Create an accessibility webpage with information on accessibility and a process for reporting website access problems and getting help.
Vu points to an easily overlooked additional step. “Training needs to extend to all employees who interact with customers. This needs to include your branch associates and especially your phone banking associates. They need a basic understanding of how your disabled customers use your website and other mobile channels in order to respond in an appropriate way to questions or concerns about how those channels are working.”
What are the lessons learned?
Preety Kumar, founder and CEO of Deque Systems, points to some lessons her firm has learned over 15 years of working on ADA compliance issues.
First and foremost, having a policy and enforcing it is the most important part of an accessibility program.
Next, ask yourself: how do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time. Recognize that this is not an overnight project. You will do version one, then version two, then version three. You need to prioritize the bites. Start with categories of defects. What are critical barriers? What are site-wide issues? You need to inventory and then survey your high-risk properties. Use your common sense and work iteratively. Don’t start with your executive bios.
Put automated tests in place now. Kumar recommends that you tell your developers to download aXe, which is open source and free.
Move accessibility testing up in the development process. Add this to your UX research and design rather than testing as the system is deployed. Catching a defect in the design and requirements phase can reduce cost to fix an issue by up to 100:1.
Inquiring bankers want to know.
ABA recently presented a webinar on the topic, giving bankers the opportunity to direct specific questions on accessibility to Vu and Kumar.
How are businesses responding to lawsuits and demand letters?
Vu indicates that attempts to fight have generally been unsuccessful—with motions to dismiss, including one filed by Huntington Bank, generally being denied.
What do I look for in a digital accessibility consultant?
Here are some things to consider, according to Vu:
- Determine the key people from the company who will be working on your project.
- Is the firm involved with standard-setting agencies such as the WC3 or other industry groups?
- Investigate their work with other clients and ask for references.
- How do they conduct testing (e.g., manual or automated audit, or both)?
- What is the quality of deliverables? Know what you are actually getting.
- What type of certification of compliance will you get at the end of the process?
What about the mobile channel?
Vu sees this channel as principally a next phase. “Mobile phones are inherently accessible, but their accessibility features only work if the app is coded to work properly with the built-in screen reader software,” she explained. “There are currently no generally accepted standards for mobile such as WCAG 2.0, level AA. Mobile app guidelines are expected to be a part of WCAG 2.1, which is anticipated in a few years. Although we have not seen lawsuits or demand letters regarding mobile app accessibility, this issue has been addressed in some DOJ and advocates’ settlement agreements.”
What about social media?
Banks may have a presence on social media pages that may be inaccessible. Banks should make sure the content they post on the page is accessible (e.g., videos with closed captions) but they cannot control how the social media page displays the information. If a bank knows that the social media interface is not accessible, it should ensure that any information or special offers on that page are available elsewhere in an accessible venue (e.g., its own accessible website, or by 24/7 toll-free phone service).
So now is the time to take steps to protect your bank from ADA claims related to website availability. We will learn more and share with you as months go by.
Deb Stewart of Charlotte, N.C., is an independent consultant working for the financial services industry. Email: email@example.com.