If Your Bank’s Website Built for the Blind, You Could Lose an ADA Lawsuit

What you don't know about new ADA regulations governing website accessibility for people with visual disabilities could embroil your financial institution in a costly lawsuit. Here's what financial marketers need to do now — before the April 2018 deadline.

For most people, accessing a bank or credit union website is a straightforward process. They open a web browser, visit the website, and find what they need. However, for those with a visual disability, it’s not that simple. They may need to use additional hardware and software tools to help them navigate around the web. And even when the visually disabled have access to these tools, many websites — including those from a large percentage of banks and credit unions — aren’t designed and coded properly.

Until now, website accessibility hasn’t been something financial marketers bothered with unless their own internal compliance department harped on them to do so. However, in 2018, that will surely change. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is rolling out official compliance guidelines concerning online accessibility for the visually disabled as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After initially stating that guidelines would be rolled out in the spring of 2016, they have now decided to first focus on public sites (Title II) so that they can get their ducks in a row and then focus on private (Title III) sites. However, waiting until it’s the law makes your site a sitting duck in the meantime. If you aren’t in compliance, you can still expect to get sued — like Target, Reebok, and the NBA have already found out… the hard way.

What Kind of Compliance Will Be Mandated?

The DOJ has been pretty clear that WCAG Level AA Compliance will become the new standard. This breaks down into four different types of guidelines for website compliance:

  1. Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive (e.g. alt tags that say what the item actually does, like ‘Submit form Button’).
  2. Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable (e.g., you must be able to navigate the site using a keyboard as well as a mouse).
  3. Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable, (e.g. error messaging on a form should make sense; instead of ‘Invalid field’ messaging, use ‘The Email field must be in a valid format’).
  4. Robust – Content must be robust enough so it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. In other words, don’t use tags or code that only certain browsers understand.

Checklist of Compliance Requirements

Many of the website compliance tactics are also best practices for search engine optimization, while others are tactics that wouldn’t typically be employed by a website development team unless specifically asked. Some of these regulatory guidelines may change with the impending April 2016 announcement, but the following are nonetheless a good reference point as marketing and technology teams begin planning.

  • Text Alternatives – Provide alternatives for non-text content (e.g., images) so that it can be accessed by impaired individuals.
  • Time-Based Media – Provide an alternative (e.g., transcript) for time-based media (e.g., audio/video) that presents equivalent information, or link to textual information with comparable information for non-prerecorded media).
  • Adaptable – Create content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure.
  • Distinguishable – Make it easy for users to see and hear content, including separating foreground and background, by using readable fonts, larger font sizes, and highlighted link styling for example.
  • Keyboard Accessible – Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Timing – Provide enough time for users to read and use content.
  • Seizures – Do not include design elements that are known to cause seizures (e.g., rapid flashing).
  • Navigable – Provide multiple ways to allow users to navigate content including obvious/prominent links and other techniques.
  • Readable – Make text content readable and understandable via styling and other techniques.
  • Predictable – Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways
  • Input Assistance – Assist users with web experience, correct mistakes and describe errors in text.
  • Compatible – Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

What Will Happen If You Ignore or Delay ADA Compliance?

How do you know if your site needs to be compliant? First, let’s quickly look at what separates ADA compliant websites from others. One of the key components to a site’s compliance is the presence of descriptive text — either on the page, or in meta tags. While you may have a visually-stunning site, without any informative text specifically for the visually impaired, that page will be utterly useless.

The question of which sites need to be ADA compliant can be answered through the traditional lens of discrimination: does your website offer a service that could be deemed discriminatory if “denied” to certain users (e.g., a blind user couldn’t find or apply for a certain financial product because of the way your information is presented online). If your financial institution provides online access to a variety of services to its members, you must make those same services accessible to everyone, regardless of physical ability. This is similar to wheelchair ramps and audio assisted ATMs that have become commonplace at many institutions over the years.

The DOJ has already settled a lawsuit with mobile grocer Peapod over their website’s compliance issues, which is telling as to what’s in store for banks, credit unions in the near future. The DOJ claimed that it was not possible for someone with a visual handicap to use Peapod’s online shopping service in the same way a non-impaired person would. Peapod has since invested in the resources to overhaul their online platform, hired staff specifically dedicated to compliance, and made donations to organizations that benefit the disabled.

Besides the possibility of legal consequences, there are equal rights implications as well. Prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, there was nothing preventing discrimination against individuals on the basis of disability. But when it passed, many new regulatory guidelines affected financial institutions on a corporate- and public-facing level. Now that online and mobile banking are more commonplace, it’s going to be similarly necessary to get those platforms up to the same standards as in-branch banking.

And hey, let’s face it: there’s the moral responsibility, too. If you had a family member with a visual impairment, you’d want them to have the same level of access as much as anyone else, including the financial services. It’s about treating everyone with fairness and dignity — not just the fear of getting sued.

Performing a ADA Compliance Audit

For banks and credit unions who are investing in a website redesign, being aware of and planning for these impending website conformance standards is imperative. Creating a website that is non-discriminatory should be a part of every institution’s basic creed. While your website may not have the traffic of a high-profile site like Target or Reebok, if it doesn’t provide equal opportunity to all visitors, your brand image could suffer and you could lose business — or both, if you get slapped with a publicly-embarrassing lawsuit. At the end of the day, it comes down to the customer, visitor, client or partner — a real human being with real challenges — who needs to access your website. Maybe they won’t blow it up into a legal battle, but you still run the risk of losing goodwill and customers vs. adapting, doing the right thing, and greeting that person with open arms.

The first step for most banks and credit unions is to run a scan of their website to identify the critical changes that must be made. Generate a report identifying all non-compliant issues and questions, and turn each into actionable tasks. This type of audit should be performed regularly, to ensure that the site continues to be compliant as changes are made particularly when there are multiple employees accessing the site. The good news is that there are tools already out there that can help you identify key website compliance issues.

Ensuring that a bank or credit union website is compliant can be a relatively seamless effort, particularly while rebuilding a site or as part of an overall site compliance initiative. It doesn’t need to be a significant financial investment. It can simply be one of many requirements for the site design agency, but to keep your website compliant as it grows and evolves over time, you will need to come up with ongoing procedures.

Will Creedle heads up Quality Assurance and Business Analysis at ZAG Interactive, a full-service digital agency that has built hundreds of banks and credit union websites. To talk to ZAG Interactive about website strategy or your site’s compliance with ADA regulations, please call 860.633.4818.

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