Growth, Shopify

Website Accessibility: what it means and how to make your website compliant

Disclaimer: We’re not lawyers, and the information in this article is intended to be for educational purposes only. Therefore, it should not be taken as legal advice. We encourage you to seek legal counsel on how you should make your website accessible!

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With the recent decision of the Supreme Court allowing people to sue retailers if their websites aren’t accessible, many ecommerce store owners are wondering if they are liable.

The topic of website accessibility can be hard to grasp. It isn’t a one time, update-your-code and forget about it kind-of-thing. But with 1.8 billion people worldwide now shopping online, it’s more important than ever to ensure your store is accessible to everyone. 

First, what is the ADA and how does it impact my website?

In plain terms, the ADA, or American Disabilities Act, is the law that governs accessibility. 

And thanks to recent court decisions, we know that if a website or app acts as an extension to a physical store location, it is interpreted as a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. (This doesn’t mean that digital-only brands are completely off the hook, but it does provide some reassurance for now.)

For a website to be ADA compliant, it needs to be accessible. 

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

Therefore it impacts every member of your digital team - from designers to developers to content creators.

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

  1. Are you compliant with the law?
  2. How well can persons 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.

Not to mention it’s just good practice. 

What is legally required of me?

As you can imagine, the law hasn’t kept up with the digital age. 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 article. (But rest assured that 2.1 inherits all of the requirements from 2.0. Therefore, content that conforms to 2.1 also conforms to 2.0.)

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 wording or meaning of each criteria. 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.

*Note: It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.

How do I make my website accessible?

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

This criteria is comprised of 50 requirements. 

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

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

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

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

  4. 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 criteria in depth here.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, so we’ve created a handy ADA website compliance checklist to help you along the way. It will provide you with the minimum Level A and AA WCAG 2.1 requirements. If you do everything on this list, you should be pointed in the right direction. 

Claim your copy of the ADA website accessibility checklist today!

You should aim to meet all 50 requirements, though not doing so doesn’t mean your website isn’t accessible. But it’s important to ensure you’ve covered your bases. Once you’ve done your best to meet each of the 50 requirements, do a gut check:
what are the common paths that visitors take when they land on my site? 

Prioritize these paths and ensure everything is accessible on a shopper’s journey. 

How does Shopify fit into all of this?

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, and our checklist.

What about an app?

We recommend building accessibility straight into your code, while also creating and uploading content that is accessible on its own. This keeps it under your own control. (It also helps reduce any page speed issues that come from running third-party apps). Here at Fuel Made, we strive to build accessibility into our sites as standard practice.  

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. 

You can see that Bandolier is using an app called UserWay that allows for basic accessibility - bigger text, more text spacing, etc. An icon appears in the bottom left corner when a visitor lands on the site. 

Accessibility App

Once clicked, a menu appears. And while it might not hit every box on the WCAG success criteria, at least you are doing something.

ADA and Website Accessibility

Feeling exhausted yet? Maybe 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. 

Claim your copy of the ADA website accessibility checklist today!

Laura Kluz