Raise your hand if you’ve bought something online in the last year. OK, that’s all of you. When online shopping, don’t you expect to access and navigate a company’s website, and complete your purchase, simply and easily? Your self-storage renters feel the same.
When you think of “accessibility,” things like wheelchair ramps, handrails and braille signs might come to mind. You provide these things so it’s easier for a customer to do business with you, regardless of their physical abilities. But the fact is, people want the same positive experience when they visit your website as when they visit your brick-and-mortar property. You don’t want to exclude anyone, and here’s why:
First, an estimated 20% of the U.S. population has a disability. One in five relies on a screen reader or other assistive device to help them navigate websites. If they have to struggle when they get to yours, they’ll simply go to a competitor who communicates their self-storage services in an accessible manner.
Second, the legal landscape is unclear. Does the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to websites? The answer is maybe. The courts are divided. To complicate matters, there are several state laws that may require your website to be accessible, such as California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. If it doesn’t meet current industry standards for accessibility, you could be at risk of being sued.
The No. 1 goal of most marketing efforts, including your online presence, is to reach more renters. That makes the “why” behind website accessibility straightforward. It’s to help you contact a wider audience.
Lawsuits and Demand Letters
Let’s talk for a moment about “surf-by” lawsuits. The phrase makes me imagine a surfer handing out settlement demand letters like a talk show host giving away prizes. “Brah, you get a demand letter! And you get a demand letter! And you!” It sounds funny, but it’s a real threat.
You may have read about (or been unlucky enough to experience) a “drive-by” lawsuit in which a plaintiff law firm claimed a self-storage facility’s parking spots or wheelchair ramps didn’t meet ADA requirements. Someone literally drove or stopped by a storage property and decided to make that busines a target. Even if the suit wasn’t grounded in truth, it was no doubt frustrating and expensive for the owner.
A new wave of surf-by lawsuits makes similar allegations concerning website accessibility. People are taking advantage of the ambiguity of current regulations. In 2020 alone, there were more than 3,500 digital-accessibility lawsuits filed in the United States and an estimated 250,000-plus settlement demand letters sent to website owners.
Before you think, “This doesn’t apply to me,” know that we aren’t just talking about massive name-brand corporations. Plaintiffs are going after small and mid-size companies, too. Why? It’s profitable. Website accessibility is a grey area, which makes many business owners more apt to pay a settlement than to fight a lawsuit in court.
Standards and Framework
In lieu of legal consensus on what website accessibility should look like, the de facto standard is the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organization for the Internet. That said, WCAG is a moving target, as it’s constantly being updated. It currently has three levels for compliance: A, AA and AAA.
Level A is the easiest to meet. The focus is almost entirely on HTML code that allows a website to work well with various screen readers and assistive devices. You likely won’t visually notice a difference between a website that meets Level A requirements and one that doesn’t. Keep in mind, though, that you can’t simply slap an accessibility app on a website without paying attention to the foundational “bones.” The right coding is necessary, as it signals to screen readers and assistive devices how they can translate your website and empower a user to navigate through it.
Level AA adds criteria focused on website aesthetics, for example, larger font sizes to increase readability. Level AAA is a rather severe standard that isn’t recommended for most websites.
To make things more complicated, the WCAG is constantly changing, and each time you update your website, there’s an opportunity to slip out of compliance. Paying attention to the details of WCAG matters. Right now, the most current version is 2.1, but 2.2 is expected to drop soon, and an even bigger upgrade will be released in early 2022.
Accessibility needs to be at the core of your website-building and maintenance process, not an afterthought. The best solution is to work with a qualified partner with experience in creating accessible sites. If you launch an inaccessible website and think you can just get it up to WCAG later, you’ll eventually be back at square one.
When evaluating a website-services provider or talking with your current one, ask questions. What standards do they follow? How do they approach accessibility monitoring and maintenance? The technical requirements continue to evolve, and you need to be able to rely on this company as your subject-matter expert.
If you’re already working with a provider, make sure you or they are checking on the website at regular intervals to ensure it continues to meet current standards. You’ll want access to those records, too, because if you happen to be the recipient of a demand letter, it can be helpful to have a paper trail that proves your ongoing commitment to accessibility.
If you want to be more hands-on, there are many website-accessibility scanning tools available (by our last count, there were more than 160 options). But many won’t tell you if you’re meeting WCAG. Rather, they’ll show you a “failing” score that can only be resolved (miraculously) if you buy their products and services. Others may show your website as passing, but if you were to run the scan again at a different time of day, it might fail based on page speeds, load times and integrations. While you might see ads that suggest otherwise, software alone won’t keep you on top of updates. It takes a combination of people and systems to ensure ongoing accessibility compliance.
Once your website is compliant, add an accessibility statement to it. This tells the world accessibility is important to you and you’re striving to make your website an inclusive, welcoming place for people of all abilities.
The bottom line is there’s no quick fix. A long-term approach to website accessibility is vital because the standards are dynamic, and your self-storage operation must continue to adapt.
Thomas Lavallee, senior director of compliance at G5, is an attorney and trusted compliance expert with a global business background in regulatory compliance, data security and data privacy. He leverages litigation, program management and leadership experience to provide a full-stack approach for business solutions to meet compliance requirements. To reach him, call 800.554.1965 or email [email protected].