For more than three decades, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has safeguarded the rights of millions of disabled people. Wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and accessible restrooms — the hallmarks of this landmark piece of legislation can be seen in stores and malls across the country.
But what about in the online world? We know eCommerce companies strive to offer great customer service, but are they doing enough for customers with conditions that limit their ability to type, use a mouse, make out images, or read website content?
The reality is that online sellers have an important obligation to abide by the ADA and make their web stores accessible to everyone. By taking appropriate measures to make their stores more inclusive, eCommerce operators can avoid costly penalties — but also reduce friction, drive sales, and make their brands more appealing to everyone.
Does the ADA Apply Online?
If you think of the ADA as chiefly about wheelchair ramps and accessible restrooms then its relevance to online sellers might not be apparent. But the ADA doesn’t distinguish between online and offline retailers, stating only that there must be fairness in all places “of public accommodation.”
Does that include virtual stores? Target, Netflix, and Dominos have tried to argue not — but they’ve been unsuccessful. After a run of lawsuits, there’s now little doubt that ADA does indeed apply to digital brands. The ADA is designed to protect the rights of disabled people, prevent discrimination, and promote inclusivity — and it doesn’t matter, for the purposes of the ADA, whether you’re selling in the mall or on a website or mobile app.
In fact, companies that neglect their ADA obligations face significant risks. The volume of web accessibility lawsuits is growing every year, with a 320 percent increase in legal proceedings since 2014. These cases often prove expensive for defendants: Target had to pay almost $4 million when a judge ruled its site was inaccessible to blind people, and non-compliant companies also face significant reputational risks if they’re perceived to be discriminating against the disabled.
Such risks are especially significant for retailers that scaled up their online operations during the pandemic eCommerce boom. Lacking the resources of larger rivals, new online operators simply can’t afford the financial or PR penalties they could face if they neglect their ADA obligations.
How to Stay Compliant
Fortunately, ensuring ADA compliance isn’t rocket science. Online sellers can draw on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — a set of industry standards for online accessibility — to help guide their compliance efforts.
According to the WCAG, digital stores should be perceivable (every piece of content can be perceived in more than one way); operable (every feature can be operated in more than one way); understandable (everything can be easily understood); and robust (online accessibility functions won’t easily break).
That boils down to the understanding that disabled users require certain on-screen features to be more pronounced and compatible with accessibility tools such as screen readers. For instance, digital sellers should ensure that shoppers who struggle to use mice or trackpads aren’t forgotten when it comes to site menus. Sites should be accessible using keyboards, with users able to cycle through menus and other elements using the Tab button and arrow keys. Likewise, users should be able to open menus by pressing Enter and close them with a stroke of the Esc key.
An eCommerce site’s buttons should also work intuitively with keyboard navigation, with clear visual warnings when clicking a link would open a new window. Links should be made more visible, too, with the use of contrasting colors to make them easily recognizable for visually impaired users.
Images are also key to ADA- and WCAG-compliance. Storefront pictures and graphics should have alt-text — captions describing their content — so that visually impaired users with screen readers can interact with them more easily.
Finally, website forms should be designed with the needs of disabled shoppers in mind. When an error occurs during the input process, users should be taken to the first invalid field, with a visual and text-based notification that something has gone wrong. Additionally, a screen reader-friendly confirmation message should be displayed when the form is successfully submitted.
The Case for Compliance
Implementing ADA- and WCAG-compliant features into your web store might sound complicated, and it’s true that building accessible sites requires time, energy, and attention to detail. But it’s worth getting right because staying compliant isn’t just about avoiding penalties — it’s also about reaching a broader audience and maximizing your revenues.
There are now more than sixty million people living with a disability in the US. That’s almost one-fifth of the population. If retailers don’t comply with ADA and WCAG rules, they risk missing out on this group’s colossal purchasing power, estimated at nearly $500 billion.
Research suggests that nearly three-quarters of disabled online consumers click away from websites that they find difficult to use, with the vast majority — 86 percent — saying that they’d be happy to spend more if a retailer focused on accessibility.
It’s also worth remembering that when a website is designed with disabled access in mind, it is generally more intuitive for all users, whether they have an impairment or not. By definition, ADA- and WCAG-compliant online stores are easier to navigate and more thoughtfully laid out, making for a more streamlined shopping experience that encourages customers to spend more and keep coming back.
Open to Everybody
Whether they’re a small start-up or an established enterprise, online businesses have a lot to gain by making their digital stores accessible: bigger sales, happier customers, and a reputation of inclusivity. The flipside of this is also true — eCommerce companies that fail on the accessibility front risk losing sales, hurting their reputation, and in some cases, leaving themselves open to costly legal proceedings.
So if you’re running a brand with an online presence, make sure you take accessibility seriously. For today’s eCommerce businesses, making your store accessible for everyone is the right thing to do — and it’s also a smart business decision.
Yoav Kutner is the CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc, which has created OroCommerce, the No.1 open-source eCommerce platform built for distributors, wholesalers, brands, and manufacturers. Yoav previously co-founded and served as the CTO of Magento.