Website accessibility requires an investment. While that investment pays off through improved brand presence, enhanced search engine optimization (SEO), and a better experience for all users, it’s still an investment. If you’ve got a limited budget and a complex website, offering an accessibility hotline might seem like a cost-effective alternative.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “places of public accommodation" to provide full and equal access to people with disabilities. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), websites and mobile apps qualify as places of public accommodation.
In other words, digital accessibility isn’t optional for U.S. businesses. But some organizations have argued that by providing an alternative — such as an accessibility hotline — they can comply with the ADA, regardless of their website’s design (or lack of accessibility features).
Accessibility hotlines may aid in ADA compliance, but only in certain circumstances
So, is an accessibility hotline a valid alternative to an accessible website? Potentially — depending on the circumstances.
We cannot provide legal advice on this blog, but in 2010, the DOJ indicated that staffed telephone lines can meet the requirements of the ADA (PDF) if the hotline provides an equal degree of access to a business’s goods and services.
“Equal degree of access" is important phrasing. If your website promotes an accessibility hotline, but callers must wait for 40-50 minutes to reach an operator, an ADA claimant could argue that you’re not providing those users with the same experience as non-disabled users.
The DOJ provides an example that demonstrates the difficulty of providing a telephone number that offers truly equal access to people with disabilities:
"...A department store that has an inaccessible Web site that allows customers to access their credit accounts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to review their statements and make payments would need to provide access to the same information and provide the same payment options in its accessible alternative.”
Ultimately, staffing an accessibility hotline may be much more expensive than following the best practices of inclusive web design.
Accessibility hotlines may not comply with ADA requirements if users cannot find them
If you’re providing a hotline instead of an accessible website, you’ll also need to make sure that assistive technologies can find (and announce) the phone number. Ironically, this usually means adopting better web accessibility practices — which defeats the purpose of using a hotline as a cost-saving alternative.
In Gorecki v. Dave & Buster’s (PDF), the defendant argued that it had complied with the ADA by placing an accessibility banner on its website. That banner read:
“If You Are Using A Screen Reader And Are Having Problems Using This Website, please call [Phone Number] For Assistance.”
Judge Philip Gutierrez of the Central District of California recognized this argument as a valid defense against an alleged Title III ADA violation, citing the 2010 statement from the DOJ.
However, Dave & Buster’s failed to submit evidence that the banner itself was accessible for screen reader users. Needless to say, if screen readers cannot announce the banner, the banner isn’t serving its intended purpose.
“The record as it stands is insufficient to address compliance, so the court disagrees with D&B that the mere appearance of the phone number on the Website renders Gorecki’s claim moot,” Gutierrez wrote.
Accessibility hotlines don’t make up for a poor web experience
While we believe that web accessibility is extremely important, providing an accessibility hotline is still an excellent practice.
No website is 100% accessible to every user — even websites that follow the strict Level AAA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). If your audience has several different ways to connect with your business, you’ll reach more people.
Secondly, some individuals may strongly prefer to communicate via phone. Assistive technologies like screen readers and eye-tracking systems can work extremely well, but to use them efficiently, people may need years of experience. If a person wants to schedule an appointment or purchase a product, a quick phone call may provide a better experience than an accessible website.
But while offering a hotline improves accessibility, it isn’t a comprehensive solution. Many people prefer online experiences, and since digital accessibility impacts every user — including those without disabilities — ignoring accessibility could hurt your bottom line.
And if your website has major accessibility issues, you’re missing an opportunity to show your audience that you value them. Put simply, ADA compliance isn’t your only goal, and focusing on the experiences of real-life users is always a wise decision.
To learn more about the practices of accessible web design, download our Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility or get started with a free website analysis.