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WCAG 2 Website Compliance Explained

Do a Google search on “WCAG 2 compliance” and you could easily spend the next three weeks reading articles, all-the-while sinking deeper into confusion. But if your business is in the retaile-commerce, financial services, or technology sector, you could be at a particularly high risk of a lawsuit for ADA non-compliance.

You’ve been warned.

In The Beginning…

Back in 1990, before the Internet became a thing, George Bush Sr. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. It mandated that those with visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities be granted: “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.”

The idea was simply to ensure equal access to (and usefulness of) the everyday resources that we all take for granted, like physical structures, transportation, employment, and communication technology. This is why you now see wheelchair ramps in front of older public buildings, Braille characters on the keypad of your bank’s ATM, electric wheelchair lifts on city buses, and service dogs in restaurants.

Graph of ADA Non-Compliance Lawsuits since 2015
Rise in ADA Compliance Lawsuits Since 2015

You’ve Got Mail!

Fast-forward about ten years to the late 90’s, and the Internet is in its first major growth spurt. “You’ve Got Mail” became a household catch-phrase, and the Internet suddenly became an indispensable part of everyday life.

“Working together, we can ensure that every American citizen will be provided the access and opportunity to be a part of all that society offers.” – Former US Senator Bob Dole

The Early Years…

In 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to provide a guarantee that: “electronic and information technologies (EIT) produced by or for the federal government will be accessible to individuals with disabilities.” The new “Title III” requirements were created and worded in such a way that it became the first legal definition to include all online interfaces that were used by the public, including the Internet.

Braille keypad for the blind

Government websites were quickly updated for compliance. However, companies in the private sector either didn’t see the need, failed to understand the technical requirements, or simply couldn’t afford the expense of major website renovation.

The First Official Guidelines – WCAG 1.0

A year later, in 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0), written specifically for web designers.

It was the first time a set of specific criteria was published that outlined exactly what was required for a website to achieve ADA compliance. Still, very few actually took it seriously.

The Gold Standard – WCAG 2.o

Fast-forward another 10 years, and in 2008 the WCAG 2 compliance guidelines were released. The new guidelines were quickly and widely accepted as the gold standard for web accessibility. Schools, banks, retailers and other institutions, both public and private, began to refer to the guidelines when developing new websites. Still, most companies and organizations, free from governmental pressure, continued to regard the guidelines simply as a costly nuisance, rather than a new, better way of developing websites.

Interesting Factoid

Many of the core strategies that are implemented to improve a website’s accessibility are the very same strategies implemented to improve and stabilize on-site SEO performance!

The reason for this is simple: The assistive technology, aka “screen readers,” used by the blind, and the crawler “bots” utilized by Google, both rely upon site structure and on-site meta information to “read” and interpret the content of a web page.

How to (not) Get Sued!

Anytime the government releases “guidelines,” it doesn’t take long before high-profile companies with deep pockets are sued for non-compliance. As of August 15, 2017, at least 751 lawsuits had been filed in Federal courts. That number does not include lawsuits filed in state courts or cases that were settled before becoming full lawsuits. Avoiding a lawsuit is all about strategy. You need to first ensure that your site adheres to at least a basic level of compliance, which also makes good sense from a usability and SEO point-of-view. Then, you need to make it obvious to web visitors that you’re aware of the requirements. We’ll cover some other risk-mitigating tips in Part II of this series.

Time is Running Out

The clock is ticking. On January 18, 2018, the Department of Justice will be requiring all government websites to be fully compliant with the WCAG 2 compliance standard. Health care provider websites will likely be the next, due to the healthcare industry’s tight connection to the Federal Government, which is a result of the Affordable Care Act.

If you are in the retaile-commerce, financial services, or technology sector, you have good reason to be concerned. After January 2018, awareness of accessibility issues will be heightened, and the courts will have the WCAG 2.0 standards cutting a clear path. High-profile, customer-facing businesses with websites, like banks and retailers, be warned – you’re next.

But there is some good news! In next week’s Part II of this post, we’ll look at how to determine if you are a target. We’ll also present some simple, inexpensive things you can do to reduce your overall risk – and improve your SEO performance at the same time!

In the meantime (if you’re brave enough) try entering your website URL into this free web accessibility tool.

About the Author

Andrew Woodward is Weidenhammer’s Digital Marketing Specialist. With over 15 years experience in all things marketing, Andrew prides himself on being able to connect the dots, finding holistic, dynamic digital solutions for client marketing challenges. When not busy helping the audience to find his clients, he enjoys writing about the highly-debated topics in the world of digital marketing.