Why website accessibility should matter to your law firm

In January of 2020, the Second Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal granted summary judgment in favor of a plaintiff who alleged that a local restaurant’s website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it was not compatible with online screen-reading software, a tool commonly used by individuals with visual impairments.

The decision in Thurston v. Midvale Corporation doesn’t put to rest the issue of what organizations must do to ensure that people with disabilities are able to use their websites. It does, however, illustrate that courts are moving toward the position that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that all people are equally able to use the internet.

Website accessibility is an emerging and important issue. In this blog post, we answer four common questions people often have about accessibility. Think of this blog post as a starter guide for a topic you will likely hear much more about in the future.

Why does a website need to be accessible? Central to the idea of accessibility is equal access to all services and information regardless of physical limitation. The countless resources on the internet need to be as readily available to people with sensory losses or other impairments as they are to those without a disability. Beyond just permitting the consumption of information, websites should also allow for the exchange of information including asking a question, making a comment, or providing feedback. The internet changed how society communicates and transmits information, and it needs be accessible to anyone and everyone.

What makes a website accessible? Generally speaking, there are three primary ways to make a website accessible. The first and most technical way is to use coding and other forms of technology to make a website compatible with software that “reads” the internet for people with sensory loss, such as a vision impairment caused by cataracts. A second, and more conceptual way, is to make sure the website is built from the ground up with the awareness that different users need to access information in different ways. For example, including a phone number that can automatically initiate a call and a built-in way to quickly and easily email someone is more accessible than a website that just lists office hours and an address. Lastly, the design and content of a website must take into account disabilities a user may have. For example, a low-contrast color scheme may look sophisticated, but a high-contrast color scheme is much more useful to people with vision impairment. Clever, witty web copy might be humorous, but it’s not great for someone with diminished cognitive functioning. A video clip can boost engagement and user interest, but a transcript should be included for users who can’t easily process audio-visual stimuli. Overall, think of website accessibility in three layers – the technical “back end” layer, the conceptual design layer, and the aesthetic layer.

Why does this matter to me? In 2020, a website isn’t an optional feature of legal marketing. It’s as necessary as a listing in the phone book was 30 years ago. As courts inch toward mandating that all websites must be reasonably accessible to all users, your social obligation to provide basic accommodations may soon become a legal requirement. Taking action now to ensure your website complies with ADA standards is in your best interest as people with disabilities also need legal representation. Acting now, helps you expand your market. If your website is built in a way that everyone can readily access and use, you’re in a better position to attract more customers and get a leg up on your competitors.

How can I learn more about this issue? Court decisions involving website accessibility make for interesting and informative reading, but you likely don’t have time to peruse too many of them. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued an ADA Tool Kit, which includes a succinct installment titled Website Accessibility Under Title II of the ADA. Your firm is not a state or local government body, of course, but this short summary still functions as a good primer. The Web Accessibility Initiative has a lot of helpful, easy-to-understand information. The article The Business Case for Web Accessibility makes a compelling case for why website accessibility should be embraced, not resisted.

The final legal word on website accessibility has not been written, so it is important to stay updated on new developments. At FindLaw, we review regulatory and court guidance to inform our approach to building and maintaining websites, and we look to WCAG 2.1 AA for accessibility standards. While WCAG 2.1 AA is not law, it is a global standard used in the U.S., U.K., and other jurisdictions abroad. As new standards emerge (i.e. WCAG 3.0), so will our approach to building websites. We believe that the internet should be accessible to everyone — regardless of disability status — and that is reflected in our staff training, our designs and content creation, and our attention to ever-evolving accessibility standards.

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