Website Accessibility 101 for Property Managers with Attorney Kris Rivenburgh
If you saw our recent blog post and video on ADA compliance myths, you know that ‘website accessibility’ is a big buzzword these days. But, what is it and how you can you prevent one of those lawsuits aimed at your property management company, accusing your website of not being accessible?
Kris Rivenburgh is an attorney and founder of Accessible.org. He’s here to talk with us about what accessibility really means for your website and how you can avoid getting a demand letter from an attorney who claims you’re violating the law.
Introduction to Kris Rivenburgh
Kris is an attorney who became interested in website accessibility when he noticed people were being sued. It’s a brand new area for many lawyers, and as he began researching what these lawsuits were about, he developed a specialty in a subject that many lawyers and other professionals hadn’t encountered before. Everything written on the subject was vague and ambiguous. None of the information he could find was helpful to people targeted by a lawsuit. He continued his research and began writing about it. Now, he’s a resource for people who need help distilling the legal and technical jargon that keeps them from really understanding website accessibility.
Website Accessibility: An Explanation
You want to make sure that everyone visiting your property management website gets the information they need.
That’s website accessibility in its most basic form; you’re making your website flexible enough that everyone can access and engage with the content. You run into accessibility issues when the code and the structure is inflexible.
Potential Accessibility Issues on Your Website
There are several things happening on your website that you may not even think could be potential issues for people with disabilities. Kris provided a couple of examples:
- Images. You need alternative text to describe any meaningful images on your website because someone using a screen reader won’t know what the images are.
- Form fields. These need to be labeled correctly or not everyone will understand what information the fields are requesting.
Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act: Places of Access
There’s a reason that the surge in lawsuits is especially targeted to the property management and real estate industries. Fair housing laws have to be followed. While the ADA was a civil rights law that was written before websites were even a part of doing business, the law addresses all physical places of access. Websites aren’t physical, but they are high traffic places.
Title III in the ADA is where this issue lands when we talk about website accessibility. Places of public accommodation, according to the law, have typically included hotels, restaurants, gyms, and schools. Websites are different, and the courts have come to see that websites are an integral part of daily life. Some judges see them as a nexus with a physical place and others believe that websites stand alone as a place of public accommodation. Technically, the ADA does not talk about websites but you don’t want to argue that technicality in court. If you’ve received a demand letter, you’ve already lost your lawsuit.
The Fair Housing Act requires that everything is accessible, including advertisements. That’s how it applies to your property management or real estate website. Everyone needs access to the properties being advertised on your site.
Lawsuits are Driven by Serial Litigants and Plaintiff Attorneys
Something to consider is that 98 percent of these lawsuits are being driven by serial litigants in law firms that are looking for opportunities. There isn’t always a plaintiff who genuinely wants to file a lawsuit because your site and your content could not be accessed. It’s often because there’s an attorney who is testing your website and making claims over and over again when they find sites they believe are non-compliant.
This has nothing to do with actual accessibility or someone being prohibited from reaching content.
There are a lot of great advocates for people who have disabilities. They’re doing good, legitimate work trying to help more people access more information online. Those advocates are not likely to serve you with a lawsuit. Instead, you’re hearing from a lawyer who is making a money grab.
They know that it costs money for a company to defend against a lawsuit. So, they’ll send a demand letter pointing to a particular part of your lawsuit that they can prove is inaccessible. You’ll be offered a settlement that’s less than the cost of your defense. Businesses settle to save time and money. The plaintiff attorneys have nothing to lose. If you receive a demand letter, you’ll lose a few thousand dollars in attorney fees and settlements.
Avoiding Lawsuits: Is ADA Compliance Really What this Is?
There’s a lot of confusion over who is regulating what and how to follow the law. Many people are calling website accessibility ‘ADA compliance’, but that’s not entirely what we’re talking about. While we’re looking to the courts to determine what makes a website accessible, we need to pay attention to the web content accessibility guidelines, or WCAG. These are the technical standards from the World Wide Web Consortium. They’ve developed a web accessibility initiative.
Within those guidelines, the WCAG 2.0 is commonly referenced by the courts. There are 38 different bullet points with which you want to conform. WCAG 2.1 is an update and includes 12 additional bullet points.
Theoretically, if you can put all those bullet points into place on your website, you can be comfortable knowing your website is accessible.
This is the best way to prevent lawsuits.
Most of the serial litigants who are sending demand letters are using an automated scan to find the easy areas in which your website is not accessible. When you are meeting the WCAG requirements, the scan will leave your site alone.
Website Accessibility: Start with the Basics
The easiest way to tip off an automated scan is by not having alternative text available with your images, keyboard navigability, and accessible form fields.
- All images on your site need to have alt text included with them. Avoid decorative images that don’t have meaning – focus on only using images that support the content on your site. If an attorney finds images on your website without alt text, this is called a gateway claim because it’s an easy violation for them to get a grip on. Then, they’ll start looking for other things throughout your site.
- A user must be able to navigate a website with a keyboard only. A mouse should not be required.
- Form fields have to be accessible for screen readers and all the headings have to be in order and easy to spot, with adequate color contrast.
- Make sure you have a navigation bar.
- Focus indicators are needed for anything interactive, including links, controls, buttons, etc.
Stay away from slide shows. They are often great for marketing and you can add more content to them, but from an accessibility standpoint, they can be a problem. Simple is better.
Avoid what you don’t need on your website. A lot of problems arise with third party widgets and scripts. The social feed widget that you downloaded may not be accessible. Pop-ups are huge problems from an accessibility standpoint. They’re also annoying for all your users. Leave them out.
The plaintiff attorneys are looking for easy cases. They aren’t going to send a demand letter if there’s one color contrast issue in a footer. They’re looking for the obvious. We still don’t know their methodology or their formula, but we know they aren’t going to send a lawsuit over something that can be argued. It has to be obvious and it has to lead them to look for other accessibility issues.
Train Yourself to Upload and Update Content with Accessibility in Mind
This may leave you worried about how you make changes to your website. Will adding a blog post throw off your website accessibility?
Kris says no. As long as you’re making an effort and being proactive, you’ll be okay with a blog post.
You can train yourself to upload content accessibly. The danger comes in constantly reinventing your website because that means you’re always going to have to check for accessibility issues. In a blog post, you need to be aware of your headings and any ambiguous links that might be there. Make sure video and audio content can be opened easily by everyone on the site.
Don’t Fall for the Free Website Check
Yes, there are automatic tools that claim to scan your website, catch any red flags, and instantly make your site accessible.
Maybe you’ve received an offer from a company that will perform this scan for you and give you an idea of how accessible your site is.
Kris doesn’t recommend you use them. They promise to fix your site accessibility with a line of code which an icon on your site. When the icon is clicked, it will add an overlay that mimics a screen reader, and they claim this will instantly make your site accessible.
This might make you feel better, but it doesn’t mean your website is actually accessible. Instead, it asks people with disabilities to use an overlay to get to your content. That’s not accessibility. It’s forcing users to do something different and it’s insufficient.
Your website cannot be made accessible simply and overnight. You aren’t actually reducing your risk of a lawsuit.
Accessibility is a process. It doesn’t have to be a big ugly thing that’s too hard to do and it doesn’t come with an endless cost. But, you do have to make an effort. It has to be addressed and it has to be monitored.
Be wary of anything or anyone that offers immediate accessibility. You can either risk a lawsuit or do the work. The demand letters will keep going out with or without your action.
Be Proactive With Your Property Management Website
In the real estate and property management community, you are especially at risk for receiving one of these demand letters. If you’re hearing about colleagues who have received them, you can safely assume that you’re next.
Take down the things you don’t need on your website right now and work on making it accessible. Be proactive and be aware. The website owner is always ultimately responsible for the website. You are responsible for what you own and control. You can blame your developers and designers, but this is still new and the industry is still working through best practices and defenses. The nice looking website you paid for five years ago needs some things changed. Be prepared for that.
What’s most frustrating is that there are no explicit laws or mandates that say private businesses must have accessible websites. There was no notice that this would be coming. The government and regulators need to step up because no one is against accessibility, but companies shouldn’t be held accountable to laws that they didn’t know would pertain to their sites.
Don’t wait for the government or the regulatory agencies, however. Take the necessary steps now.
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