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Disclaimer: The information offered below should not be considered legal advice. We are not lawyers and make no claim of being so. Therefore, the information shared below should not be taken as legal advice. We encourage you to seek legal counsel should you have further questions about making your website accessible!

With last year’s Supreme Court decision to allow people to sue retailers if their websites aren’t accessible, many eCommerce store owners are wondering if they are liable.

Website accessibility can be a hard topic to fully understand. It is important to note that accessibility isn’t a one time, update-your-code and forget about it concept. That being said, with 1.8 billion people worldwide now shopping online, it’s good business sense to ensure your store is accessible to everyone. 

Understanding the ADA and its impact on eCommerce websites

In straightforward terms, the ADA, or American Disabilities Act, is the federal law that governs accessibility both online and off-line. 

With the previously referenced court decision, we know that if a website or app acts as an extension to a physical store location, it is considered as a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. (While this doesn’t mean that online-only brands are completely off the hook, it does provide some breathing room for now.)

Achieving ADA compliance through accessibility 

Website accessibility involves strategically using design and code to make the content of your online store accessible for all users, whether they live with a mental or physical impairment or not. A significant part of accessibility is how you create, design, and display content.

When it comes to website accessibility, you should view it from two perspectives: 

  • Is your website compliant with the law?
  • How well can people with disabilities access your website?

The purpose is to ensure the 57 million Americans with disabilities have “full and equal” access to all of the content on a website without any barriers or frustrations.

What are the legal requirements?

There are still many gray areas when it comes to website accessibility. There are no clear rules.  

But the U.S. courts have continually referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA success criteria as the standard way to determine if a website is accessible. WCAG was recently updated in 2018. It is now called WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines, which is the version we will be referencing in this post. 

There are three levels of WCAG 2.1: A, AA, and AAA. To be fully compliant, you must meet both A and AA criteria.

The problem is that it can be hard to decipher the meaning and expectation of each criterion. It also isn’t crystal clear if a website meets them or not. For example, if you’re missing one alt text on one image on one page out of 50, does that mean your entire website is inaccessible?

It’s also important to remember WCAG are guidelines and not the law. 

Stephen E. Boyd, Assistant Attorney General, stated in a letter of Congress on June 20, 2018, that businesses do have flexibility in how to comply with web accessibility. This means that while your website needs to be accessible to persons with disabilities, there’s some flexibility in how you get there.

That said, it’s still good practice to follow WCAG guidelines. As imperfect as they may be, they are also the most comprehensive and relevant set of rules we have.

How to make a website accessible?

As we mentioned above, we know from previous court cases that the best practice is for your website to comply with (WCAG) 2.1 AA success criteria.  

These criteria are comprised of 50 requirements. 

There are four categories that WCAG’s success criterion falls into: 

Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive (e.g. provide alternatives for time-based media.)

Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable (e.g. make all functionality available from a keyboard.)

Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable (e.g. make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.)

Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies (e.g. maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.)

You can read about every criterion in-depth here.

How does Shopify fit in?

You may be wondering about how to comply with the ADA on Shopify. Truth is, it’s just like any other website. Shopify as a framework does not impede or create any issues with complying, you just need to make sure that your theme supports the suggestions shared in this article.

What about an app?

We recommend building accessibility straight into your code, while also creating and uploading content that is accessible on its own.

That said, if you have a brick and mortar shop and have not reached compliance on your site yet, we do think it could be worth your while to install an app on your site while you work to bring your site into compliance. 

An app such as UserWay that allows for basic accessibility through bigger text, more text spacing, etc. can be a great option for short term strides towards compliance. It works by placing an icon in the bottom left corner of your website that a visitor arriving on your page can click to enable.

Feeling Overwhelmed? We can help!

We know it can be a bit of a headache to ensure you are ADA compliant, but it really needs to be taken seriously. As attorney Kris Rivenburgh points out, the first thing you need to do is to take action. Because as long as your website doesn’t adhere to any of the standards, you’re potentially at risk for lawsuits, not to mention excluding valuable visitors.

The key takeaway here is that any visitor should be able to access all of the content on your website, without any barriers or frustration. As a business, it’s your responsibility to ensure the 57 million Americans with disabilities have the full and equal opportunity to access your site. If you’ve still got questions, feel free to reach out to see if we can help you. 

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