Can customers with disabilities use your site and app?

Co-written by Monica MacKay and Andrew Rose-Rankin

If you’ve recently reworked your website or app, you likely – hopefully – did a proper UX audit to inform technical, design and content strategies. But did you account for the experiences of blind, deaf and disabled users?

Robles v. Domino’s may have opened the floodgates.
Robles v. Domino’s may have opened the floodgates for more litigation about digital properties and usability for those with disabilities.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but if your business has a physical retail location, you may be liable for the accessibility of your digital “locations,” too.

In a recent court case, Guillermo Robles, a blind man from California, wasn’t able to order food on Domino’s website and mobile app despite using screen-reading software and sued Domino’s. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, arguing “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises—which are places of public accommodation.” Late last year, the Supreme Court denied a petition from Domino’s to review the decision, effectively leaving the ruling in place.

There used to be an airgap between a physical business and a digital business. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, requires companies to accommodate individuals with disabilities, it became law when the internet was in its infancy and not used for commerce. There is no clear federal guideline for digital business – yet. Robles v. Domino’s may have opened the floodgates.

A new ruling states businesses have the affirmative obligation to make their digital properties accessible to those with disabilities.
A new ruling states businesses have the affirmative obligation to make their digital properties accessible to those with disabilities.

Sobering reality of the business risks

We’re experts in a lot of things but not the law; so we consulted our attorney neighbors at Gingras Thomsen & Wachs who specialize in civil, constitutional, and employee rights. Trial attorney William F. Sulton thinks this is a milestone case for a couple of reasons.

“The ruling is important because it states businesses have the affirmative obligation to make their digital properties accessible to those with disabilities,” said Sulton. “The more interesting aspect is that a privately accepted standard can be used as evidence in an ADA case.”

That privately accepted standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Although there is no federal government standard for ADA compliance in the digital world – no regulation about what your website has to do – the existence of these privately accepted recommendations is enough grounds to justify a case. In other words, if you know you can do better, it would be wise to do it.

“This is a huge case for disability rights and fertile ground for plaintiff lawyers,” added Sulton. “Businesses should pay attention to any letters they’ve received from lawyers requesting accommodations on behalf of specific customers. Being forewarned puts you at risk.”

Businesses are missing out on segments of their markets by not improving their websites and apps to be more accessible for users with disabilities.
Businesses are missing out on segments of their markets by not improving their websites and apps to be more accessible for users with disabilities.

Don’t wait for complaints: plan upgrades now

This has immediate ramifications for business with both retail and online platforms and across many industries, like food, healthcare, banking, investing and hospitality.

So what should you do? Start planning today. Legality aside, businesses are missing out on segments of their markets by ignoring the opportunity to do better. Here’s how to start:

1. Evaluate your customer experience (CX) holistically to find the friction. What about your retail experience is valuable or easier for those with disabilities relative to your site or app? And don’t guess. “As with any standard, it’s about managing risk. Know your customer base and your platforms,” said Sulton.

Reach out to customers with disabilities for their input on both the in-store/in-office experience and the digital experience. What are the core problems to solve? Don’t assume you know the solutions without understanding the inherent challenges.

2. Get help making the right tech adaptations. It may not be possible to make your online or app experience as helpful or easy as a face-to-face interaction in your retail location. However, if you’ve evaluated your CX properly to pinpoint what to solve, then you can work with the right technology experts to create adaptations. (Make sure the experts know the WCAG and how to evaluate a customer experience holistically – not only digital channels.)

We’re working with a few clients on risk mitigation strategies. Here are some of our quick recommendations for a good start:

  • Look at text-to-speech software and speech recognition software. Don’t forget about 24-hour hotlines as an option for ongoing support.
  • Make sure images have descriptions on them. Not only is it good for SEO anyway, but an image-heavy website will be completely useless to a blind user without text that can be read with software.
  • Similar to images, videos need captions, too, and not ones that compete with the video content. For deaf and blind users alike, captions may be the only way video content can be fully understood, depending on the storytelling nature of the video.
  • Sometimes a creative design can convey so much more than words can, but remember that those who are visually impaired may be unable to discern some of the meaning or emphasis communicated through visual cues. Provide text alternatives so they don’t miss out. Although color vision deficiency isn’t a technical disability, think about color choices in your design, perhaps avoiding red/green combos – the most common color blindness.
  • Avoid captcha programs for verification.

3. Don’t forget about your intranet and employee tech. Does your company use a portal for employee benefits, an intranet for employee communication or time-tracking software? If these are required tools for the job, then these should be part of the scope, too.

4. Prioritize. These investments may not be steep for large businesses, but the cost of these changes can be more burdensome for small and mid-size companies. It’s all the more important to know the most important impediments for those with disabilities and evaluate a range of solutions that fit the budget and match your brand. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Case status and timing

The case hasn’t settled yet, but Sulton expects a resolution soon. That doesn’t mean the end of the debate.

“In our country, we have to solve this initial threshold question. If you have a brick and mortar, does it matter? In our district [the 7th] it doesn’t,” said Sulton. “And don’t forget about state laws. California, New York, New Jersey and Washington state have really strong disability laws that go beyond federal law anyway.”

Don’t get caught frantically catching up because you didn’t anticipate new expectations or waited to see how many cases followed suit. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be impactful; prioritizing the right solutions to make your website or app more accessible can go a long way.

Need help getting started? Reach out to us for support. Our team has the right mix of brand, communications and technical experts to help you evaluate properly and determine upgrades that work for your business.