In order to accommodate guests with disabilities and stay ahead of pending requirements from the U.S. Department of Justice, hotel companies should ensure their websites have built-in accessibility features.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has existed since 1990, website compliance with the law is still developing.
The law requires that places of public accommodation—such as hotels—provide “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, privileges, advantages or accommodations” to people with disabilities. While the law clearly applies to physical spaces, there’s a growing debate whether this also applies to companies’ websites.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to issue regulations requiring specific levels and types of compliance with the ADA for websites, according to Andrea Kirshenbaum, principal at Post & Schell. She said the department announced the advance notice of proposed rulemaking in 2010, but it delayed issuance of proposed regulations multiple times. The proposed regulations are expected prior to fiscal year 2018.
“It’s a developing area,” she said. “Businesses expected the rules to come out to help them comply with what the Department of Justice was saying is required.”
Because those rules haven’t come yet, Kirshenbaum said, businesses are left in the interim looking to Department of Justice consent decrees and court cases for guidance. Some courts have found websites to be places of public accommodation, while others have found the opposite.
Without a final set of regulations, it’s more challenging for hotel companies to know what will be legally required for their websites, Kirshenbaum said. Similar to physical structures, websites can change over time, and adding content to a website on a constant basis means this will be an ongoing compliance issue.
“There are a lot of competing demands placed on all businesses for compliance,” Kirshenbaum said. “We can’t say with certainty what level of compliance is going to be required, but I think certainly this should be on (hoteliers’) radar screens to be assessed to determine any modifications … to make their websites to be accessible.”
Knowing the standards to follow
In the absence of legal requirements to follow, there is a de facto technical standard created by the World Wide Web Consortium called the web content accessibility guidelines, said Rick Bowes III, executive consultant at Tech For All, a website accessibility consultant firm. The newest version, WCAG 2.0, is the standard used internationally, he said, as well as the new standard for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 the federal government has to follow on its websites and likely what the Department of Justice will use.
WCAG 2.0 created three levels of compliance standards: A, AA and AAA. Level A is basic, and while helpful, it doesn’t do the trick, Bowes said. AAA is what would happen in a perfect world. AA is the middle of the road and is what people have settled for, he said.
“Website designers should expect to be judged by how they take into account WCAG 2.0 level AA,” he said.
The WCAG 2.0 checklist covers a number of accessibility issues, including non-text content, captions for prerecorded time-based media, audio descriptions, sensory characteristics (shape, size, visual location, etc.), images of text, user seizure concerns, multiple ways for users to navigate a website and more.
“If they’re conforming with WCAG 2.0 AA, they will have very little wrong with their site,” Bowes said. “They have also demonstrated goodwill in trying to make their site accessible.”
Knowing what to fix and when
Making hotel websites accessible sooner rather than later will help hoteliers, said Jared Smith, associate director at WebAIM, a website accessibility training and consulting company. He added that it will be difficult and expensive to address if a company sits back and waits until the website accessibility becomes an issue, either through a lawsuit or DOJ action.
“Have a plan to address it,” Smith said. “Even over time, that’s going to make the entire process less expensive and more effective in the long run.”
Designing a new website or completely redesigning one from the ground up with accessibility in mind is much easier than trying to retrofit one, Smith said. Hotel websites are complex, he said, because there is a lot of information to display on them, and there’s also search and booking functions and payment processing. Focusing on usability and accessibility at the start is far easier than trying to work them in after the fact, Smith said.
“Trying to add to something already that complex, it’s just more difficult,” he said.
The three main problems Smith said he’s seen with hotel websites are alternate text, or “alt text,” headings for navigation and keyboard accessibility. Websites tend to be fairly image- and graphic-focused, and if the images convey something important to guests, the information needs to be translated into text a screen reader can recognize, he said. The headings structure helps guests navigate through the page, and the keyboard access allows users to navigate the website if they can’t use a mouse.
A website audit can help hoteliers know what their website needs, Bowes said. Consultants can identify where the weaknesses are and then map out what hotel companies’ web designers need to do and how.
“Most developers have no clue how to fix them, because they didn’t realize there was a problem before,” he said.
The right team, the right tools
Hotel companies might employ their own in-house web designers or hire third-party designers. Either way, Bowes advised to make sure the designers know about website accessibility and how to implement it. There’s more to it than opening a book and using an application, he said.
“Make sure that the designer/developer didn’t just pay lip service to accessibility,” Bowes said. “One way to do that might be to ask them how they went about (adding accessibility), what did they do. … Ask if they’ve heard about WCAG 2.0.”
As part of the design process, Bowes recommended having the team involve a person with disabilities to help test some of the features. A blind person can explore the site with screen-reading software, he said. There are automated tools out there to test, but they don’t work well enough, he said.
“They get a number of things right, but they get a lot of false positives and miss a lot,” Bowes said. “Automated tools don’t apply intuitive sense.”
One possible approach to design is agile development, he said, which is when web designers work on the software or web applications in sprints, completing small pieces at a time, and then move on to the next task once they get it right.
“It’s important to incorporate accessibilities considerations in whatever development techniques you’re using,” Bowes said. “Do it at the end and it’s going to cost you more and mess up your schedules and anything else.”