People everywhere use the Internet as a primary source of information, but for those with disabilities, common barriers make much of the content inaccessible. Videos without captions or transcripts, the inability to adjust text colors and sizes, and images without alternative text all make online browsing difficult.
Website accessibility is critical for all businesses, including those in the self-storage industry. If your website isn’t accessible for everyone, it can lead to legal issues. In fact, according to a recent blog from law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, the number of website-accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court under Title III of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) skyrocketed to 2,250 in 2018, an increase of 177 percent from the previous year.
Self-storage operators can provide a more inclusive user experience, reach more prospects and potentially avoid legal trouble by ensuring their websites are up-to-date with the latest accessibility laws practices.
What Is Website Accessibility?
Website accessibility refers to development and design best practices that allow all users, regardless of their ability, to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with a website. The most widely accepted standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provide procedures for creating websites that accommodate users who rely on assistive devices, adding a layer of usability and improving the experience for all.
Assistive devices such as screen readers allow people with visual impairments to understand images and other visual content on a website. Accessible websites include features that improve usability with these devices.
Clearing Up a Common Misconception
Although there are no enforceable legal standards to follow for website accessibility, a lawsuit may still be filed against your company. Most lawsuits filed against businesses for allegedly having inaccessible websites do so under Title III of the ADA:
Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors' offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.
When the law was originally written, companies didn’t conduct business online the same way they do today. No language in the law identifies websites specifically, though plaintiffs assert that websites are a “public accommodation.”
Why Compliance Is Important
Self-storage operators need to make website-accessibility compliance a priority to mitigate legal risks and do their part in making the Internet a better place for all users. Consider the following when updating your website for accessibility:
- Reduce risk. Get ahead of possible litigation by addressing accessibility issues, maintaining an accessibility statement, and providing options for users to contact you when they encounter issues on your website.
- Improve website performance. General accessibility updates can have a positive impact on overall website performance, including usability and search engine optimization.
- Reach a wider audience. Following website-accessibility best practices ensures all visitors can have a good user experience and can easily access information about your facility.
- Stand out from your competition. If a user can’t understand the content on your website, he’ll likely move on to another. Ensuring your website meets accessibility guidelines can help your facility stand out from the competition.
- Show customers you care. Communicate to your customers that you care by taking steps to make your website more accessible. An accessible website conveys that your company focuses on providing a positive experience for all.
Factors to Address
The World Wide Web Consortium’s WCAG documents explain how to make Web content more accessible to people with disabilities and impairments. “Web content” generally refers to the information on a Web page or application, including user-facing information such as text, images and sounds, and code or markup that defines structure, presentation, etc. Following the WCAG principles helps you address factors to make your website more accessible for everyone.
Perceivable. Information and use-interface components on a website or Web application must be presented to users in a way they can perceive. For example, text alternatives should be available for any non-text elements (photos, video). Use color, contrast and text size to make it easier for users to distinguish content on the page. Information should be presented in different ways without losing meaning.
Operable. Navigation and user-interface components must be operable. For example, all website functionality should be operable through the keyboard. Pages display content titles, section headers and labels to ensure navigability—and in a way that can be read without time limits. Make sure content on your website doesn’t cause seizures or physical reactions due to things like flashing.
Understandable. User-interface components and navigation must be understandable. For example, pages should be written in a readable language, not computer code or symbols. Labels or instructions are provided when content requires user input and navigational mechanisms are repeated on multiple Web pages.
Robust. Content on your website must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technology. Elements should have start and end tags and shouldn’t contain duplicate attributes.
Below are frequently asked questions and corresponding answers many self-storage operators often have about website accessibility.
Will making sure my website meets WCAG mean that I won’t be sued? No, meeting these principles doesn’t guarantee you won’t be sued. If you have legal concerns, I recommend consulting an attorney with experience in this field. However, by not addressing website accessibility, you put your business at greater risk.
How frequently do I need to check my website to ensure it's WCAG-compliant? Once your website has been updated to meet WCAG standards, minor updates could affect whether your site still meets those standards. It's a good idea to check that you’re still in compliance every time you make a change to your website.
Does my online leasing software conform to WCAG requirements? Most online-leasing platforms can be used with assistive devices, though the experience may be cumbersome. Consider providing a phone number to the facility office for customers with disabilities who need more assistance.
Should I include an accessibility statement on my website? Yes. An accessibility statement provides guidance for users in case they encounter a usability issue with your website. It indicates that your business takes accessibility seriously and you’re working to provide a good user experience for all customers. The statement should include an assistance phone number that can be used during or after hours.
Make Compliance a Priority
As an innovative self-storage operator, you have the opportunity to contribute to a more inclusive user online experience, reach more prospects and mitigate legal issues by making website accessibility a priority. Following WCAG standards and updating your website to be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust helps make it more accessible to everyone, including users on assistive devices.
A better user experience and more accessible website helps you reach a wider audience, improve performance, stand out from your competition and show customers you care. With a rise in accessibility litigation, it’s essential to ensure your website is compliant.
Thomas Lavallee is a compliance director at G5, which specializes in real estate marketing optimization. He studied law in Ireland, Connecticut and Boston, where he spent five years as a civil litigator. He’s currently licensed to practice in Oregon and Washington. He joined G5 in 2016 as the director of business operations before turning his focus to compliance. For more information, call 800.554.1965; visit www.getg5.com.