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Even Internet Entrepreneurs Need to Make Their Businesses Handicap Accessible Disabled users have sued businesses over website accessibility. The Americans With Disabilities Act applies to online businesses.

By Richik Sarkar Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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As entrepreneurs move from idea to action, they often start by creating a website. And why not? The internet provides access to billions of people and potential customers. However, while the access is incredible, entrepreneurs often ignore the principle of accessibility and fail to take the required steps to ensure that people with disabilities are able to use their business's website.

Just like every pot has a lid, every problem has a plaintiff. In 2017, plaintiffs filed at least 814 website access lawsuits, including a number of class action filings, alleging that a company's failure to ensure that the blind and sight-impaired could use their websites violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 -- a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Of the 814 federal cases, New York and Florida had 335 and 325 cases, respectively, with another 115 in California state courts, so this not a national litigation epidemic yet.

Related: User Experience Is the Most Important Metric You Aren't Measuring

But, before these trends begin to spread across the country, entrepreneurs need to recognize the benefits of making their websites accessible and businesses available to all. This is especially important as our populations, especially baby boomers, age and more people require assistive devices to access websites and conduct business with entrepreneurs.

In short, the ADA requires places of public accommodation -- retail stores, rentals, educational institutions, recreational facilities, service centers, etc. -- to make their locations accessible through physical aids and guides. Critically, neither Congress nor the Department of Justice has expressly extended the definition of public accommodation to include websites. The statute plainly contemplates physical places. Finding no friend in the government, many individuals, led by plaintiffs' counsel (some of whom have dubious intentions), have convinced some courts to transmogrify selected website accessibility standards and argue that companies who have not satisfied same are in violation of the law.

One such set of standards is known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are promulgated by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The most recent version of the WCAG contains 12 guidelines addressing web accessibility. Each guideline contains criteria to determine conformance at three different levels: A, AA or AAA; however, the WAI does not recommend that Level AAA conformance be generally required as it is not possible to satisfy all level AAA criteria for some content. That said, many lawsuits seek to enforce AAA standards without any legal justification.

Related: 5 Steps to Make Sure Your Website Is ADA-Compliant

Though there is no legally-mandated standard, if only to reach as many potential customers as possible, all entrepreneurs should take steps to increase customer accessibility. How can businesses take charge of efforts to ensure accessibility? Many vendors will analyze website URLs and identify gaps and provide a punch list for entrepreneurs to prioritize. As most entrepreneurs tend to focus on what they know, they should ensure that their website vendors have undergone website accessibility training and certification and understand and comply with website accessibility and WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Whether using a vendor or attempting to create and manage their own sites, at a minimum, entrepreneurs must make sure their website can be read and navigated by screen readers and other assistive technologies. These tools enable consumers with disabilities to get the information they need and complete a variety of transactions and purchases. Next, it would make sense to have a visually impaired tester attempt to navigate the website with such assistive technologies, screen readers or magnifiers. To reach as many customers as possible, which is in the best interest of both the company and consumer, companies should strive to ensure that their websites are accessible and substantially comply with the WCAG 2.0 AA principles, including making sure that:

  • Websites and their various forms and engines can be used using only a keyboard or equivalent
  • Buttons and calls to action include adequate prompting and labeling
  • Alternative tags and text -- which can tell the blind what is on an image -- are present on all images on the websites
  • Navigational elements on the websites are properly labeled
  • The websites contain easily resizable text
  • Pop-ups are not used on the websites
  • The websites do not only rely on CAPTCHA tools for security
  • Server-side image maps are not used on the websites as a mouse is typically required to access

Related: How to Keep Up With Technology as a Business Owner

Creating and addressing to-do lists of compliance issues and content management are important steps to making websites accessible to all, but even more important is creating -- and actively nurturing -- a culture of accessibility and compliance. While this can be done through routine accessibility audits, responsible, innovative and successful companies will look beyond websites and focus on accessible apps, plug-ins, IOT devices, etc., as websites are only one part of an entrepreneur's plans to create successful businesses and a prominent digital presence.

Richik Sarkar

Member, McGlinchey Stafford PLLC

Richik Sarkar is a member in the Cleveland office of of McGlinchey Stafford PLLC. Sarkar practices in the areas of commercial and consumer complex litigation, ecommerce and internet law, data protection and cybersecurity, and white collar/government investigations.

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