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Online Shopping and ADA Compliance: What You Need to Know

Oct 22, 2018

The end-of-year holiday season has always been the biggest two selling months for both physical businesses and e-commerce stores. According to a study by Adobe, the biggest 100 U.S. retailers brought in revenues of $108 billion in online sales between November and December 2017.

Unfortunately, online shopping sometimes poses unique challenges for people with disabilities. The CDC recently found that 25% of US adults have a disability. Despite common myths about web accessibility, people with disabilities do use the internet in large numbers, and like everyone else they’re not afraid to vote with their dollar.

With the holiday season once again just around the corner, now is the perfect time to examine why compliance with regulations like the ADA is both good business and the right thing to do.

Do e-commerce websites have to be accessible?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most important legislation in the United States governing disability requirements for private businesses. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in “places of public accommodation,” which includes private businesses that are open to the general public such as retail stores and restaurants.

Because e-commerce websites don’t have a physical address, there has long been confusion and debate over whether Title III of the ADA applies to them. However, in a growing number of legal cases regarding website accessibility, judges have upheld the spirit of the law, finding that online retailers must comply with the ADA as if shoppers were visiting them in person.

Also consider this: if an e-commerce website isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, it isn’t just in violation of legislation like the ADA — it’s turning away millions of potential customers.

To cover their accessibility bases, e-commerce sites should be brought into compliance with accepted accessibility standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Judges in ADA lawsuits have found that WCAG is sufficient for websites to meet the requirements of Title III.

Accessibility testing for e-commerce websites

E-commerce websites should undergo thorough manual and automated testing for accessibility. Here are some of the more common areas these sites may want to pay attention to: :

  • Checking out: The checkout process is the most important stage for any e-commerce website, so it's crucial to get it right, including for customers with disabilities. Online shoppers abandon nearly 70 percent of their purchases in the shopping cart. Remember to test down to the final action — imagine the frustration (and the loss of sale for the business) when someone gets items in their cart, has entered their information, and can’t submit because a use case at the very end isn’t accessible.
  • Form fields: Filling out website forms can be a challenge for some people with disabilities if they aren’t coded properly, but it’s essential in order to enter critical elements like the correct shipping address and payment information. All form fields need a proper label, and the form should include proper error messaging so that users can easily understand if they’ve entered something incorrectly.
  • Color schemes: Website designs should have sufficient color contrast to be usable by people with color blindness and low vision. You can check your own website’s color scheme any time with free tools such as the a11y® Color Contrast Accessibility Validator.
  • Alternative text: Because online shopping is usually a very visual activity, product images should have strong, accurate alternative text that describes the exact contents of each image. People with visual disabilities (and others) can use this text when navigating a website with assistive technologies such as screen readers, when images don’t load, or in a number of other scenarios.
  • Mobile shoppers: Mobile devices account for 28 percent of e-commerce purchases in the US, and this percentage is only expected to grow in the future. Desktop and mobile versions of a website need to be thoroughly tested for accessibility.

Final thoughts

Improving the accessibility of your e-commerce website will both expand your audience and help bring you into compliance with disability legislation such as the ADA. We offer a number of services for e-commerce businesses who want to make their websites more accessible. Get started with a free and confidential website accessibility scan or a free 30-minute consultation with our web accessibility experts.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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