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Website Accessibility Compliance for Apartment Communities

web accessibility
July 2019

Attention continues to be paid to evolving website accessibility standards and apartment community webmasters and website developers are taking note.

Website accessibility guidelines have been in place for years, created to assist persons with disabilities to more ably navigate the Internet. Guidelines are in place but can be difficult to fully understand. Developers describe them as “gray” and “evolving.”

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA was created in June 2018 and is the most up-to-date version. It replaced what had been the commonly accepted guidelines, version 2.0. 

Guidelines that exist—and are merely defined as guidelines and not legal requirements – can be complicated, extensive and overwhelming to some webmasters, website developers say. The WCAG 2.0 Level AA, for example, contains hundreds of pages of suggestions, many of which are open to interpretation. 

The biggest hurdle is understanding the broad guidelines. They range over every aspect of web design; from code to functionality, content and design. Some basics of accessibility are easy to implement—such as having descriptive “alt” text for images. Most others require a major site overhaul.

Creating a website designed to work for all people is no small task. 

Webmasters must consider how content and code will display for people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical and visual disabilities. 

Webmasters must think about the multi-faceted ways that people will interact with the site. To achieve this, several web and software components must be working together.

Best Practices for Accessible Content

When creating digital content, make sure to consider the following:

  • Do not rely on color as a navigational tool or as the sole way to differentiate items
  • Images should include alt text in the markup/code; complex images should have more extensive descriptions near the image (perhaps as a caption or descriptive summaries built right into a neighboring paragraph)
  • Functionality should be accessible through mouse and keyboard and be tagged to worked with voice-control systems
  • Provide transcripts for podcasts
  • If you have a video on your site, you must provide visual access to the audio information through in-sync captioning
  • Sites should have a skip navigation feature
  • Consider 508 testing to assure your site is compliant
  • Remember that providing a secondary channel to meet the Section 508 requirements does not guarantee that disabled users will have an equal and positive experience on your site. You must design your secondary channel with both audience and context in mind. In other words, the “secondary channel” doesn’t have to be treated as “secondary.”

Avoid These Mistakes

Apartment companies should make every effort to try to make their online experience accessible to all users, including those who access the web through various screen readers and other accessibility tools, web developers agree. Recently, fair housing attorneys have discovered that they can target companies for website accessibility issues to try to reach a settlement from property management companies, an announcement shared this year by NAA.

Websites that meet the most basic requirements can still have accessibility errors that potentially could be flagged, especially by the surface-level website accessibility testing tools that are available, one website development company says. Things to consider checking include:

  • Images that don’t have alt text descriptions for vision-impaired visitors
  • Mislabeled page headers (or headers that are missing entirely)
  • Not enough contrast between the text and the background colors/images
  • Contact forms that are mislabeled or not labeled at all
  • Missing “skip links” (this is a link that allows visitors with text-based browsers to skip the repetitive navigation and go straight to the main page content)
  • Redundant or broken links

Apartment marketers typically rely on their website partners to handle many of these issues. Marketing teams can typically add the alt text to their images (it depends on the website CMS), but other common mistakes are determined by how the site itself is built or designed.

Companies might be leaving themselves open to accessibility lawsuits, and it’s a problem many don’t even realize they have, website developers say, and they need to be proactive in making the necessary investments to make their online presence ADA-complaint.

What About Content

Many WCAG guideline elements are specific to content. Website developers generally do not provide content for their clients – only a platform on which they build their websites. Therefore, meeting a WCAG requirement often is a team effort from both sides. Website developers must provide the functionality for their clients to insert content specific to and appropriate for their own website and property.

Website developers can use logic built into site templates to produce enough contrast between the text and the background colors and images. It’s not a fool-proof system, website developers say, and it comes down to decisions made about website colors and how they fit into a website design or template. Color combinations that work on some designs may not work on others. Images that don't have alt text descriptions for vision-impaired visitors are another example.

Website developers say their clients have expressed that it’s difficult to know where to start when compliance with ADA comes up. Their clients know it’s important, but it really is a specialized skill within web development to understand how to effectively create a quality user experience for all users.

Website developers say they are constantly working on improving the user’s experience both for users who use screen readers and assistive technology and for users who use a mouse and keyboard.

Websites often do not have an alternate method of displaying content that is optimized for screen readers. Providing this is important.

Chatbot applications are another recent development that are being offered as part of the website experience for all consumers, including persons with disabilities.

‘Drive-by’ Lawsuit Alert

The issue of “drive-by” lawsuits pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is widely acknowledged in the legal community. Another closely-related issue, however, is on the rise in courts nationwide: Website-oriented accessibility complaints under the ADA, known as “surf-by” lawsuits.

These lawsuits are an analog of the tactics used by litigious, often professional plaintiffs around the country in “drive-by” lawsuits. In some cases, attorneys can even use website scanning software to identify potential cases wholesale wherein a website could be interpreted as not accessible to a user with a disability, such as hearing or vision loss, or loss of motor function. They may focus on a drop-down menu malfunctioning, or the inability for widely-used “screen-reading” software to identify written messages on the screen, or even the lack of closed captions on a video, to name a few examples.

The threat that these suits pose to unsuspecting owners and operators is real. We encourage you to familiarize yourselves with this threat and take steps to avoid any risks that such a lawsuit may pose.

If you have any questions regarding surf-by lawsuits, please don't hesitate to reach out to Scot Haislip or Ayiesha Beverley at NAA.