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Web Accessibility: A New Frontier in Corporate Compliance

Web Accessibility: A New Frontier in Corporate Compliance

If your site is inaccessible to people with disabilities, it could be a liability risk.

Two blind consumers who couldn't access tax prep services on the H&R Block website will receive thousands of dollars from the company – part of an ongoing campaign to force the public sector companies to make their online content accessible to people with disabilities.

The H&R Block settlement is the latest in a series of litigation against companies with allegedly "inaccessible" digital platforms, including Wells Fargo and the Hilton hotel empire. Even Netflix has pledged to make all its videos close-captioned this year after two deaf users launched a lawsuit.

Web accessibility has proven to be the newest challenge in corporate compliance, and it appears requirements for private sector companies will only get tougher.

"An inaccessible website puts [those with disabilities] at a great disadvantage and further perpetuates a feeling of dependence and reliance on others," US attorney Carmen Ortiz said early last month, after announcing the agreement that will see H&R Block pay $49,000 to the two plaintiffs and $51,000 in civil fees.

H&R Block and the Government's Quest for Web Accessibility

The plaintiffs, along with the National Federation of the Blind and the Justice Department, alleged that H&R Block's inaccessible website was in contravention of the blind consumers' Title III rights laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The H&R Block settlement comes on the heels of new developments in accessibility law, with the federal government announcing a new timeline in its quest to update existing standards for its agencies and outside companies that receive federal funding. Those entities are currently required to follow Section 508, a 20-year-old set of regulations that has been widely criticized as out of date. The updates to the regulations – currently in the review phase – are expected to come into force by the end of this year.

But all companies, not just in the public sector, have been more or less subject to web accessibility compliance since 2010 – when President Barack Obama declared that the Internet should be considered a "public place of accommodation." That declaration meant business websites were subject to the same standards as brick-and-mortar companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, as a store front is legally obligated to accommodate customers with disabilities, websites should be able to accommodate its visitors with hearing and vision impairments.

"Companies today have to make their sites accessible," said Kathy Wahlbin, a web accessibility specialist with Interactive Accessibility.

Since 2010, the Department of Justice has been working on a new policy that would set out comprehensive regulations on how business websites should comply with accessibility standards.

How to Make Your Site Accessible

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For decades, federal agencies have been required to use technology like screen readers, Braille displays and captioning to make their websites usable for those with vision, hearing and physical disabilities. But the new standard is now considered to be the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), which lay down a long list of recommendations that look to make content "perceivable, operable, understandable and robust."

  • Perceivable. Using techniques like color contrasting, simple layout options and descriptors, developers can make it easier for individuals with disabilities see or hear web content.
  • Operable. To allow individuals with disabilities to use the entire web page, content should be easily navigated with only a keyboard interface, since some are not able to use a mouse. Users should be also be able to extend their time allotted before the page, including a check-out for online purchases, expires. Content shouldn't flash more than three times in the span of one second, to avoid causing seizures.
  • Understandable. This section recommends developers add mechanisms that define or identify usual terms and abbreviations, as well as providing opportunities to correct information on input forms. Pages should be consistent and predictable.
  • Robust. Content should be compatible with users' assistive technologies, like sip-and-puff systems, electronic pointing devices and alternative keyboards.

Businesses can comply with WCAG 2.0 on a varying spectrum, earning between A and AAA ratings depending on the web content's level of compliance.