Most people running their own small businesses know the importance of having an online presence with a website and high-quality content.
However, many small-business people aren’t aware of regulations imposed by the government that, if violated, could mean catastrophe for a small business.
One such set of rules, which you may already be required to follow in your workplace, is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
ADA compliance also applies to business websites—and if your site fails to comply, you and your business could face lawsuits and potential financial ruin.
One Massage Therapist’s Story
Stewart Cirolo is a massage therapist who has practiced since 1998 and runs his massage business, Bodies Kneaded, in Miami Beach, Florida. He has established himself as a reputable massage therapist in South Florida, with a client list of well-known local influencers.
Cirolo knows how to run his massage business. Unfortunately, what he didn’t know about his business website almost cost him his business. In July, he became the target of an ADA lawsuit when a vision-impaired person was unable to navigate and read his site.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Cirolo for $10,000.
“It was a nightmare … this could have put me out of business,” said Cirolo, who settled the suit out of court in October to avoid racking up legal fees.
About the ADA
The ADA came into law in 1990 and prevents discriminatory actions against people with disabilities. According to ADA Title III, it is the law for a business to be accessible to the disabled and meet specific requirements.
While for many the ADA accessibility that comes to mind looks like wheelchair ramps, wide doors, and access to items off of shelves, Title III also applies online, and ensures that people who are vision- or hearing-impaired are able to access a business’ website.
A vision-impaired person uses screen reader software that reads out loud the content found on a website. Screen readers can only read text, so when text is not added or not added correctly to images, links, buttons and descriptions, or if captions are not added to videos, it becomes difficult to nearly impossible for vision- and hearing-impaired people to use a website.
Enforcing ADA Compliance
Lawyers with the Seyfarth Shaw law firm have been tracking ADA compliance lawsuits since 2015 and have found they are growing in number, with at least 57 lawsuits filed in 2015 and 432 during the first half of 2017.
The state that has had the most cases filed has been Florida, with 385, according to the Seyfarth Shaw firm. Between court costs and attorneys’ fees, being sued is expensive—and many business owners can’t afford it.
“The real issue here is a small business likely doesn’t have a lot of resources, and what do you do when a predatory attorney wants to single out the business for attack? The best thing someone can do is do their best to use the resources that are available online,” said Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind. “It’s a tough situation.”
Can I Really Be Sued Over ADA Compliance?
The ADA has protections in place to prevent frivolous ADA compliance lawsuits against businesses.
“Yes, you have to make sure your website is accessible to people with disabilities unless doing that is an undue burden on the business. The problem with all that is it is theory,” said Richert.
“In the real world, anytime you have a law that allows lawyers to sue those companies who are not compliant, whether technically or significantly… the choice is to fight this and rack [up] all kinds of attorney fees and potentially lose, or settle and be done with it,” he said.
“That’s a tough position to be in for any business—but especially for a solo provider,” Richert added.
For massage therapists who want to focus on their business and not have to learn new skills in internet marketing or web accessibility for people with disabilities, there are companies you can hire to provide this service.
However, business owners should be aware of whether their website publishing company provides ADA compliance guidance or service and should not automatically assume that it is included in the purchase of the website domain or hosting service.
Accessibility Has Advantages
Improving website accessibility benefits the disabled and also helps small business websites improve their rankings with search engines like Google and Bing.
Search engines use bots to crawl websites for content that is relevant to whatever words your prospective clients use to find your website.
To understand how this works, think of a restaurant.
Every restaurant has the front of the house, which is what the customers see—the dining area, decor, pretty light fixtures and other adornments. It also has the back of the house, which is what goes on behind the scenes, away from customers’ view.
In terms of a website, the front of the house is what visitors see, and the back of the house is what search engine bots and screen readers see. This is the HTML text content of a website.
While this may sound very technical, it is relatively easy for novice website owners to have an ADA compliant site, even those using do-it-yourself tools like WordPress.
There are also companies you can hire that specialize in making websites compliant and can do it for you. It all depends on how web-savvy you are and how much time and money you can invest in your website.
How Do I Get My Website ADA Compliant?
The American Foundation for the Blind shared these tips to ensure website accessibility. You can find more of the AFB’s recommendations on their website.
When it comes to images, add an alt tag—a description in words of what the image is about. For example, if you have a photo on your website of a hot stone massage, describe the image in a few words in the alt tag like this: “woman receiving a hot stone massage.”
Be as true to the image as you can. For example, if the picture is of a pregnant woman getting a massage, consider detailed alt text such as “pregnant woman on massage table getting shoulders massaged.”
When you add a link to your site, the words that are selected for the link are important. For example, if you add a link to your massage services page, make the link to the words “massage services” instead of “click here” or “learn more.”
Say What You Mean
Avoid using bold or italicized text to emphasize meaning. Instead, state what it is that’s important. For example:
* Client Intake Form (bold)
Use This Instead:
* Please print and fill out our client intake form and bring it to your appointment.
Put Your Site to the Test
Good advice when marketing is to put yourself into your target audience’s shoes. That thinking can help you make sure your website will pass a Title III audit.
There are a number of free tools that will read a site for the vision impaired. Usability Geek’s website has a number of choices. Use one of these tools to listen to your site. If the words make sense to you when you hear them, you should be in the clear.
Check with a professional for additional help in meeting ADA compliance requirements.