Is Your Website Handicapped Accessible?

Photo credit Steve A Johnson via CC BY







Seems like an odd question – right?

It’s also a very good question – particularly if you run an e-commerce business or have a brick and mortar location.


In 1990, a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted by the Congress of the United States.  The ADA requires that “places of public accommodation” be accessible to the disabled.  At the time of its enactment, most businesses operating some form of physical facility open to the public were obligated to make those physical facilities accessible.

Failure to provide such access could and in some cases did result in lawsuits against businesses that ignored the law.

Fast forward to 2006…

That was the year that individuals and the Department of Justice began exploring bringing lawsuits against companies whose websites were allegedly inaccessible to disabled people. 

To date, the law is unsettled as to whether the ADA actually applies to websites and mobile apps.  Some courts have ruled websites and apps are subject to the ADA and others have ruled otherwise.

So is a website a place of public accommodation?  In some instances, a case can be made that it is.  So what does that mean and what steps should you take to make it accessible?

Actually there are, as of yet, no clear guidelines.  There are voluntary guidelines developed by W3C, an international consortium that develops web standards.   

And the Department of Justice has on file proposed rules that are technically set to take effect in 2018 unless stopped by the Trump Administration.

Things to consider:

Websites should be just as accessible as ATMs (ever notice the Braille there?), elevators, terminals and other user interfaces. Not only should your site be accessible to all on a laptop or desktop but also on tablets and mobile phones.

Common barriers to web accessibility are (a) incompatibility with speech recognition or screen reading software, (b) lack of text-based alternatives to media content, (c) poor color contrast or small text size, and (d) transaction timing requirements that do not take into account intellectual disabilities.

At the most basic level, an accessible website will eventually (possibly no later than 2018) have these (and other) accessible elements:

  • Provides text alternatives for any non-text content;
  • Provides alternatives for time-based media;
  • Includes content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure;
  • Is easy to see and hear, including separating foreground from background;
  • Permits all functionality from a keyboard if needed (as opposed to a cursor);
  • Permits sufficient time to read and use content;
  • Is not designed in a way that is known to cause seizures;
  • Includes ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are;
  • Includes text content that is readable and understandable;
  • Operates and appears in predictable ways;
  • Helps users avoid and correct mistakes; and
  • Is compatible with current and future user agents, including assistive web technologies.

According to some legal experts, waiting to make your website accessible may be problematic as a number of litigants have become increasingly aggressive pursuing retailers in particular in recent months.  It’s also worth remembering that if your site is inaccessible to disabled persons, you may be losing opportunities to profitably serve this community.