Website accessibility (and ADA compliance) for property managers

Laurie Mega
| 7 min. read
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Published on June 23, 2020

According to the CDC there are 61 million Americans with disabilities. That’s one in four people in the nation. No doubt you’ve made sure your properties comply with the housing regulations set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But have you thought about your website?

The pandemic has forced many businesses to put their services online as quickly as possible, especially as ‘virtual businesses’ seem poised to fare better as full return-to-work guidelines remain uncertain.

Even if your site has been up for a while, this is a great time to take stock and make sure it’s accessible to everyone. With more and more people doing business online, you want to make sure everyone is getting the information and services they need from you.

The reality is that many people rely on assistive technology (like e-readers) to interpret website content—and that technology requires structural elements on web pages to work correctly. Headings (like H1s and H2s) not only organize the digital content, but also play an irreplaceable role in making your website accessible.

In this article, we’ll cover how the ADA applies to websites and how to make sure yours is ADA compliant by using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

A Brief History of the ADA and Websites

When the ADA was enacted in 1990, people weren’t really thinking about web accessibility. That came later, as the internet became a more integral part of everyday life.

As it became more apparent that accessibility needed to extend to the digital world, authorities began to apply Title II and Title III of the act to websites. Title III prohibits disability discrimination in places of public accommodation. Basically, businesses—even private ones—have to follow the same rules that govern restaurants and movie theaters when it comes to their websites. 

Title II, meanwhile, applies to government websites. All local, state, and federal websites must also be ADA compliant.

Since those titles have been applied, there have been several lawsuits against businesses for inaccessible websites. For example, in 2017, courts ruled against grocery store chain Winn-Dixie, which plaintiffs claimed had a website that was inaccessible to the visually impaired. Other large chains, such as Target, Sephora, and Home Depot have also been sued for non-ADA compliant sites. 

In fact, in 2018, there were 2,285 ADA website lawsuits. Sure, an accessible website can help protect your business against litigation. But, first and foremost, this legal activity is a clear indication of the increased awareness around website accessibility—and the societal need to maintain the same standards as other public places. 

But there has been an interesting side effect to web accessibility laws. Search engines such as Google actually use the tags, alt text, and other accessibility tools to rank sites in search. By crawling what’s called back-end tags and HTML, search engines get a better idea of what a site is about and how useful it is to users—allowing them to rank the site on their results pages.

If your site has all of the indicators that make it ADA compliant, it also has all of the indicators to help it rank. While this should never be the reason to add these elements, it’s definitely a bonus.

What Makes a Site ADA Compliant?

When web designers create sites, they are trying to make the most attractive, user-friendly, and mobile-friendly site to bring in visitors, increase time on page, and boost conversions. They’re also trying to make important information and tools easy to find and even simpler to use.

There are a lot of visual and audio elements that help them do that. But those elements don’t always translate for those with disabilities.

An ADA-compliant website is one that makes accommodations for all types of disabilities. That includes the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and those who cannot type on a keyboard or use a mouse.

WCAG 2.1 actually sets out guidelines for making the web accessible for those with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. It also provides guidelines for age-related disabilities.

They were originally created in 1999 and then revised in 2008. Countries around the world use these standards as the benchmark for web accessibility. These are the guidelines that, when a company is sued over web accessibility, the court uses to measure compliance. Sites found in violation of the ADA must bring their site up to level AA compliance of the WCAG

There are several levers to pull to make your website compliant. The ADA provides a toolkit to help you identify those levers. Use it along with the WCAG 2.1 guidelines to make sure your site is accessible to all.

Included in both sets of guidelines are these examples:

  • Making online documents accessible: Text-to-speech readers can’t scan PDF documents, so providing an HTML or Rich Text Format (RTF) version will make them accessible to those who are visually impaired.
  • Text descriptions and alt text for images: A text-to-speech reader needs descriptions and alt text to “read” images and describe them to the visually impaired. Alt text is text you add behind the scenes of your website to describe your photos.
  • Closed captions for videos: Videos should include closed captions for the hearing impaired. It’s also interesting to note that, according to a 2016 Facebook study, 85 percent of videos on the platform were viewed without sound because people are viewing them in a place where sound would be disruptive or unhearable. If you want tips for making online videos, keep in mind that they should not only have captions, but the sound elements should not be integral to understanding the video.
  • Descriptive tags for online forms: All forms should also have descriptive tags so that screen readers can pick up the fields.
  • Voice-command enabled: Your site should allow voice commands for navigating, filling out forms, and clicking through to other pages.
  • Use content infrastructure: Use titles, subtitles, and other text elements to help page readers understand your pages.

The ADA’s toolkit lists a number of other actions you can take to make your site accessible. Regardless of how you do it, testing for accessibility needs to be a step that you build into your digital plans and process. Web teams in particular will already be familiar with QA and exit criteria. Pro tip: There are also free website accessibility graders out there to get a baseline idea of where you are without taking someone else’s word for it.

How You Can Make Your Website Accessible

Now that you know what you need to do, how do you go about doing it? There are three options.

First, you can try to do it yourself. If you know how to code, you can certainly save some money by adding alt text, description tags, and other accessibility elements yourself. As you create or add new videos, you can make sure they have closed captions and description elements, as well.

If you’re not that familiar with web coding, you can hire someone else to do it for you. Look for a reputable web developer with experience or certifications in HTML, CSS and Javascript who can help retrofit your site with the proper elements. 

Finally, you can create a website with a property management platform like Buildium, which includes a solution by accessiBe that builds web accessibility elements into your site. Your site will still include your branding, but save you time by providing the ability to scan and correct any issues getting in the way of its accessibility.

With so many Americans with disabilities, making every aspect of your business ADA- and WCAG 2.1-compliant is critical. Websites that accommodate those with disabilities, not only comply with the law, but also make your business inclusive of all residents and owners—and ensure that prospective residents and owners can find and contact you. It expands your site (and your business) to everyone in your area, including prospective owners and investors looking for a management company.

At the end of the day, think of your website as your digital front door. By making your digital properties accessible, you are throwing that door wide open for everyone who interacts with your business. The fact remains that accessibility is a broad issue—and a universal standard doesn’t truly exist. Still, property management companies can learn a lot about how they communicate and interact with their residents who might need that information most.

Read more on Legal Considerations
Laurie Mega
Laurie Mega

Laurie Mega has planned, written, and edited content on a variety of subjects. Her work has been published by HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, Philips Lifeline, and FamilyEducation, among others. She lives in the Greater Boston Area with her husband and two boys.

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