Be an a11y: What Real Estate Pros Need to Know about Web Accessibility

7/17/2019

Heat Level: Medium: These tips require some experience.

Bottom Line: If you have a website, you need to be aware of web accessibility requirements; not only is it just the right thing to do, but it could save you from potential legal trouble down the line.

Do This: Know that web accessibility is an issue that’s not going away any time soon, and talk to your web designer/manager about taking steps to ensure your site is compliant.

handicap accessible logo painted in white on asphaltIf you have a website, you need to be aware of web accessibility requirements.

Imagine going to a website hoping to do some research on a company or search for a product to buy and not being able to use their site at all. Your mouse is frozen so you try to use keyboard commands, but it doesn’t get you very far. The text on the page seems to be missing parts, because what you’re reading doesn’t make sense. The colors all blend together so you can’t tell what’s linked and what’s not.

Would you stick around for long? Probably not. 

Now imagine that every single site you went to was like this. Sound frustrating? Absolutely! And yet, that’s exactly what using the internet can be like for people with disabilities or limited access. And as our dependence on the internet grows, sites that exclude disabled individuals are increasingly problematic. In the last few years, complaints and legal filings regarding web accessibility have skyrocketed in all industries, including real estate. 

So what do you need to know (and how do you make sure your site is accessible)? 

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is becoming a popular topic online. There’s a thriving online community of “a11y” (shorthand for “accessibility”) advocates working tirelessly to make the web free and universal place for all users - regardless of limitations. From education to legal and policy advocacy, internet accessibility efforts are impossible to ignore.

Of course, we should start with the obvious: what is web accessibility? It’s pretty much what it sounds like: making sure that your website is reasonably usable for all people, regardless of disability or other limitations.

That means that your site needs to function for people with limitations like:

  • Visual impairments: Meaning your site needs to work properly with assistive technologies that read online text to visually-impaired users. Your use of color also needs to be carefully considered so that color-blind users are still able to see and understand both the text and functional elements of the site.
  • Hearing impairments: Meaning your site needs to work for people who cannot hear, i.e. all videos, podcasts, and other auditory elements should have text alternatives for users who can’t hear.
  • Motor Skills Limitations: Meaning your site needs to be functional with keyboard commands or use of other assistive technology for users who can’t work with a mouse.
  • Seizure risk: Meaning your site should not have any flashing elements that could induce seizures.
  • Limited bandwidth: Meaning your site needs to be functional, even if all elements cannot be loaded due to limited internet access.

How is web accessibility judged?

Here’s where things get a little sticky. At the moment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not cover websites...so there’s no true legal guide in the US on what makes a website accessible. For the time-being, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has pointed to Title III of the ADA, which basically says that places of public accommodation must either ensure their websites are accessible, or provide “an accessible alternative.” 

Globally, site accessibility is judged by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which is run by the World Wide Web Consortium. While they're not “laws,” they are the internationally-recognized standards. Most countries have set their own legal policies up to match what is in the WCAG. These guidelines have three tiers of compliance: A, AA, and AAA.  

The lowest level, Level A, still leaves a pretty high barrier of entry for disabled users. Level AAA is the highest standard, but according to the World Wide Web Consortium “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.” Because of this, in the United States, the DOJ judges sites based on their compliance with Level AA.

The WCAG guideline looks at four key areas to determine compliance:

  • Perceivable (users need to be able to perceive all components regardless of their capabilities)
  • Operable (users need to be able to navigate and use all components regardless of their capabilities)
  • Understandable (users need to be able to understand all content and components)
  • Robust (all content needs to be robust enough that it can be read by a variety of people and technologies, including assistive technology)

Why should I worry about web accessibility?

First, the obvious: it’s the right thing to do. You wouldn’t knowingly exclude disabled individuals from other aspects of your business. So why would you online? And while this is a newer issue, it’s only going to grow. Your best bet is to pay attention now and get ahead of the curve, rather than playing catch-up in a few years.

There are also major legal consequences to ignoring your site’s web accessibility. In 2017 the number of filings and complaints regarding web accessibility doubled...and in 2018 it tripled. If you work in New York, Florida, or Pennsylvania, this is especially true, as these states saw the most complaints in the country

New York in particular saw over 1500 filings in 2018 alone. Even if you don’t live in these top three areas, this is a growing issue nation-wide as more and more users take a stand against alleged discrimination online.

Equally problematic is the overall lack of clear, legally-binding rules in the United States. This ambiguity has led to a spike in cases against businesses of all kinds - including smaller firms and companies - in an effort to take advantage of the murky legality in this area. For real estate companies, web accessibility claims are a growing problem. You can read about NAR’s work on this front to learn more

In other words, you can’t afford to ignore web accessibility. It’s not just the right thing to do - it’s essential to keeping your business running and staying out of a courtroom. 

Bottom Line

From a legal standpoint, worrying about your site’s accessibility is an essential step to protect your business. From a moral standpoint, it’s the right thing to do. It’s also just good business to make sure that your organization is inclusive of the widest number of people possible. 

So where do you go from here? First, talk to your site manager to find out where your online presence stands. After that, check out our basic accessibility tips here to learn more!

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Jess Clair self-portrait on Mount Washington
Jess Clair is the Marketing and Sales Project Manager at Joyce, Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA.
Working with ListingManager allows Jess to explore an alternate reality where she could one day own a house instead of renting. When she’s not focused on her daily to-do lists, Jess enjoys HBO binges, gourmet lattes, and playing with her dog.

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