With major Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits hitting several companies, self-storage owners are increasingly curious and concerned about online compliance. In fact, website-accessibility lawsuits increased 16 percent in 2017, and 2018 is poised to see even more, according to law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
Of course, avoiding legal battles isn’t the only reason to care about the ADA. Online accessibility improves your user experience and search engine optimization (SEO), according to a WebAim.org blog. It also broadens your audience to include the 20 percent of Americans who have some form of disability. The benefits of accessibility are enormous, but it does involve some significant changes to your website. Where and how do you even start?
You’re already familiar with ADA compliance at your storage facilities. It includes items such as wheelchair-accessible units, door pulls and door tensioning. Fundamentally, this is all website ADA compliance is: offering unfettered access to your virtual business just as you do the physical locations.
You’ve almost certainly experienced not being able to access something online at one point or another, maybe a video that wouldn’t stream or a site you tried to reach via phone that wasn’t designed for mobile. This is frustrating for some people, but for others, the Internet experience can be a major stumbling block. The principle of accessibility means just that: constructing a site that can be used by all visitors, whatever their data plan, whatever their browser, and whatever their physical and mental abilities.
ADA compliance is a major component of accessibility, but the adaptations required make a website easier for everyone to enjoy and use. You might assume these user-experience principles are built into every website but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. By default, most websites are constructed to work only for a narrow range of users. ADA standards broaden that audience.
The standards that guide compliance are the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Developed through The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community in which member organizations, W3C staff and the public work together to develop Web standards, they’re used internationally and included as requirements in lawsuits. WCAG is organized around four guiding principles:
- Perceivable: Content should be perceivable by all users. For example, a video with captions provides multiple ways to take in the material. We must keep in mind that just because something is perceivable with one sense, such as sight, it doesn’t mean all users can understand it in the same way.
- Operable: The user interface and content should be operable by all users. For instance, users should be able to tab through or click on the fields in a reservation form. That way, they aren’t restricted from converting if they need to use a keyboard instead a of a mouse.
- Understandable: The user interface and its interactions should be easy to understand, with consistency to avoid confusion. For example, if your website offers a unit-rental form, its field requirements should be clearly marked and explained.
- Robust: The site should be robust enough to be experienced by a wide variety of browsers, devices and user agents. For instance, it should be built to work with screen readers.
This last principle brings up an important point: There’s a common misconception that the ADA is only, or primarily, for screen-reader users. While accessibility certainly includes the needs of users who are blind, it’s much broader and includes requirements for visual, hearing, motor and cognitive disabilities.
Each of the WCAG guidelines is associated with one of the above POUR principles and explains which website elements you need to meet for various user requirements. For example, 2.4.2 is an ADA guideline that will be familiar to many storage owners. It’s stipulates that each Web page include a title that describes the topic or purpose of the page. This is simply a good title tag, a very common SEO tactic.
You may have also been on a site where the 1.4.2 guideline would’ve been extremely helpful. This is a requirement that any automatically playing audio must have a stop button and volume mechanism if it plays for more than three seconds.
Each of these guidelines is also organized by level of conformance. In the examples above, 2.4.2 is a Level A operable guideline and 1.4.2 is a Level A perceivable guideline.
- Level A: The Web page satisfies all Level A success criteria, the minimum level of conformance.
- Level AA: The Web page satisfies all Level A and AA success criteria. Most lawsuits require AA conformance, as the U.S. Department of Justice uses Level AA as the accepted standard for judging a site’s accessibility.
- Level AAA: The Web page satisfies all Level A, AA and AAA success criteria. Typically, this level of conformance isn’t required as a general policy for entire sites, as it’s not possible to achieve all AAA success criteria for some content.
Deciding what success criteria in which you’ll be satisfied is the first step in creating an accessibility program.
If you’re wondering if your website is compliant, the answer is likely no. As a sadly nonstandard feature for most Web companies—unless those requirements were expected, declared and frequently monitored and reported on—ADA guidelines likely aren’t part of your site build. However, there are a few free tools you can use to check your pages right now. These aren’t exhaustive, nor do they replace a full accessibility program, but they can give you an idea of the errors your pages contain:
- Accessibility Checker
- Web Accessibility Versatile Evaluator
- Accessibility Developer Tools (Chrome Plugin)
To create an online ADA-compliance program, you’ll need to:
- Ask your Web developer or a specialized vendor for a full compliance audit.
- Decide on a compliance deadline and required criteria level.
- Work through each of the items discovered. (Some changes require a Web developer, while others can be achieved within a content-management system on your own.)
- Monitor frequently, on ongoing basis, for successful updates or new problems.
As any website code, content or design change can create a new accessibility problem, your team and vendors should have a thorough understanding of your compliance requirements.
Accessibility isn’t a box to check off once. In fact, it isn’t a box to be checked at all. It’s an ongoing dedication and solution. The best way to ensure that your site works well for all users is full usability testing with paid members of your disabled-customer demographic. But if that isn’t possible, the WCAG guidelines will help you build the best possible site for compliance and are absolutely the best place to start.
Steps for Web Developers
An accessible website requires additional development consideration but starts simply with well-structured HTML. Written in a solid foundation without altering default behaviors, semantic HTML is innately accessible. With this in mind, as well as a clear separation of structure and style, the additional function and design requirements are relatively simple updates.
That said, accessibility is a specialized field within Web development. The following tactics aren’t the only ones you’ll use for a fully compliant website, but they’ll improve your site performance and cover significant accessibility groundwork.
Color. It shouldn’t be used as the only visual means of conveying information, such as on button options for “rent” vs. “reserve.” Also include a text cue and other visual cues when text color is used to convey information. For example, an underline accompanying blue text provides two indications that the text is a link.
Color must also be used carefully for a good contrast ratio, otherwise colorblind people won’t be able to understand the content. There are free tools available to check your color contrast and identify alternative choices. Level AA compliance requires a contrast ratio of 4:5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text.
Size. Text must be resizable, up to 200 percent, without loss of functionality or content.
Functionality. All functionality must be operable with a keyboard. A “keyboard trap” is when focus from a component of a site can’t be adjusted by the keyboard. For users who can’t use a mouse, this destroys the site’s functionality. You may have experienced this yourself when attempting to tab between form fields to type your information; sometimes you get “stuck” and have to move the mouse instead.
Improve Compliance and SEO
The good news is some accessibility changes can be performed inside any robust content-management system (CMS), pushing the timeline forward while taking pressure off the Web team. A lot of the ongoing monitoring also falls within CMS capabilities, like content and imagery additions. However, these changes must be undertaken by users familiar with accessibility and the correct solution. Adding poor alt text, for example, technically fixes the error of missing alt text but doesn’t improve the user experience.
The following list isn’t all-inclusive, but these five tactics will improve your site’s compliance and SEO:
Captions should be provided for audio and video. Several systems, like YouTube, offer automatic captioning, but they aren’t perfect. Always review and confirm that the offered captioning is accurate. Video-hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo allow for uploads of caption text files, which will also let you provide text cues on music or other sounds the automatic systems don’t always incorporate.
Images must have a text alternative that describe the purpose or content of the image (called the alt text). Note that the alt-text field is always required, but if the image is merely decorative, the text itself can be left out. This prompts screen readers to skip right over it.
Pages should have a clear title (a title tag) that describes the page’s purpose and content. They should have clear headers that describe and organize the page’s content. Have one “H1” tag per page to announce it. For example, “Our Storage Security” could be a header. “H2” tags are then used to organize blocks of content within the page, for example, “Individually Alarmed Units,” “Security Cameras” and “Onsite Staff.” Further and smaller header tags can be used to organize content as needed, from header thee to header six.
The purpose of each link can be determined by the link text alone. For example, you should use “see our storage-unit size guide” rather than “read more.” This allows all users to identify where they’re going and why they’d want to follow that link. This is especially important for screen-reader users. Imagine opening a page that repeats “read more, read more, read more” or “click here, click here, click here” to you. That’s not very useful.
Offering a Basic Human Right
Alongside the benefits of ADA compliance to your company, from public relations and legal clarity to increases in SEO, user experience and audience share, accessibility is important as a fundamental human right. The American with Disabilities Act states:
The Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals; and the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous...
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, said at the launch of the Web Accessibility Initiative that “the power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
We support our customers, our company and our community when we prioritize online ADA compliance and take accessibility beyond a checklist to a fundamental philosophy of how we do what we do. These are our “proper goals” and must be a major priority for all self-storage owners.
Note: This article doesn’t constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be sought for questions or concerns about your website and/or legal situation.
Anna Chandler is the manager of organic media at Go Local Interactive, where she provides strategic oversight to search engine optimization, content marketing and local-listings management campaigns for self-storage companies. She’s a dedicated advocate for accessibility and ADA compliance. To reach her, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.golocalinteractive.com.