Americans with Disabilities Act compliance is going beyond the physical equipment around the property and into the digital age. Website accessibility for the disabled has become a hot topic in recent years and the multifamily community needs to consider property website compliance.
Earlier this year, regulations aimed at federal institutions to ensure website-accessibility compliance began taking effect as part of Website Accessibility Under Title II of the ADA. Generally, federal websites need to be accessible for those who have disabilities, including those visually or hearing impaired.
While it wasn’t much of a topic in 1990 when the ADA was enacted, website accessibility has become more relevant because of the development of e-Commerce. Now that America does practically everything online, questions are being raised about how companies are accessible to disabled persons beyond their walls.
Courts rule that non-accessible websites violate ADA Title II, III
Recent cases involving Winn-Dixie and Target, among others, have significantly elevated the discussion.
Courts have ruled in favor of plaintiffs because of violations to Title III of the ADA based on large disparities between physical locations and online presences. Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices).
In June last year, a Florida federal court said in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., that the grocery chain’s website violated Title III because a disabled person couldn’t access features like downloadable coupons and order prescriptions. The court said that Winn-Dixie’s website was a gateway to its stores and considered a “public accommodation” that is required by law to provide access for the disabled.
The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff because he was “denied the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation.”
Others have faced similar fates when disabled people filed web-accessibility lawsuits. One in 2008 cost Target about $10 million in a legal fees and a settlement with the National Federation of the Blind.
Properties should consider having basic compliance on websites
The outcomes suggest that publicly facing websites offering some kind of service should enable the disabled to navigate the site and access what is portrayed.
Apartment operators fall within that interpretation and are subject to audits. RealPage Product Marketer/Websites Tyler Koenig recommends that properties have ADA accessibility at some basic levels so prospects and renters who are visually impaired can navigate sites through screen readers, which translate text and images into audio.
Updating website for screen readers a good first step
The first and most important step toward accessibility is coding text and images so they can be read by screen readers. Screen readers recognize alternative text coded in the background that describes what someone is seeing on the screen.
The screen reader user will hear audio, for example, of a photo description of an Olympic-size swimming pool with a waterfall and nearby barbecue pit. The same goes for any blocks of text or links on the page that describe the property, what services are offered, floor plans, etc.
The next step is to make sure that everything clickable on the site – buttons, links, live chat and so on – has some sort of descriptor so users know what their mouse is hovering over while navigating the site and where to go.
“Visually, there are no real changes to the site,” Koenig said. “You can’t see anything that looks different. All of this is behind the scenes, in code. It’s going through all of the pieces and updating them to have specific tags that basically tell screen reader to stop and look at piece and read it.”
Because descriptive text is a big player in website rankings, the ADA compliance features enhance search engine optimization and elevate the property so that it’s in front or more web searchers.
“Websites are made of so many images, and having that alt-text on those images is one of the easiest things that can be done. Everything we’ve seen will allow you to put down that text and tie it to the image. That gives you a boost with SEO and ADA.”
Adding alternative text a good start to appealing to disabled users
RealPage has been working with clients on website upgrades that better meet the needs of disabled users. The Content Services team identifies potential accessibility issues and makes changes to bring the website up to par to at least some sort of basic compliance.
Tools like Google Lighthouse and WAVE identify potential accessibility issues by scanning sites and reporting errors or warnings that affect screen readers.
But it’s not an exact science since ADA has no specific compliance measures other than what’s come down through the courts.
“(The tools) are best guesses, and all react differently and spit out different errors,” Koenig said. “That’s where it gets a little bit tricky. You’re not really sure which tool is 100 percent correct, none are federally backed. As far as being 100 percent compliant, there’s no template for doing that.”
Laying groundwork of compliance may head off future issues
The jury is still out on how ADA website compliance will affect the multifamily housing industry, but some aspects of the business, like paying rent online, may need to be addressed. A property that has a website not backed by alternative text to take payments could open itself up for scrutiny by a disabled resident who claims being denied of a public accommodation.
However, the ADA’s Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments states that a federal agency with an inaccessible website may also meet legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way – such as a staffed telephone information line – for citizens to use the programs or services. The agency recognizes that such alternatives “unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available.”
Until there are hard and fast regulations, it could be anybody’s guess how ADA website accessibility compliance will affect multifamily. One thing is for certain, the world is relying on web technology more and more for even the most mundane daily tasks.
Koenig doesn’t want to be alarming and isn’t aware of any multifamily properties who have been audited, but he says laying the groundwork toward compliance now may head off future issues.
“Let’s get as close as possible,” he said. “We’re trying to encourage people to always put this content on the site and make sure images are tagged. A determining factor in an audit may be looking at your attempt to be compliant.”
Learn more about how RealPage Compliance Services can help mitigate risk and keep your properties in line with changing regulations by clicking here.