By Max Starkov
There are approximately 48.9 million Americans with some form of disability. People with disabilities spend over $17.3 billion annually on travel, and the economic impact is at least double that figure since many of them travel with at least one or two other adults (Open Doors Organization). The vast majority of them use the Internet to plan and book travel.
Many travel consumers with disabilities use desktops, tablets, smartphones and other devices to access the Internet with the help of assistive technologies, including text-to-speech screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, keyboard navigation, and captioning. Such technologies have been available and widely used for decades, and today’s hotel website must enable these assistive technologies to allow travel consumers with disabilities to get the information they need and complete a transaction on the hotel website.
Over the past few years, a number of hotel companies—big and small—have been contacted by law firms with legal complaints and lawsuits related to the hotel website not conforming to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and various website accessibility guidelines. These law firms seek hefty compensations and claim they represent clients with disabilities who have not been able to use the hotel website to find information or complete a booking. Using simple free HTML scanners and validators that are highly inaccurate, these law firms can easily find examples of non-compliance on any hotel website. In fact, over 95% of all websites are in some form of non-compliance with website accessibility standards (Criterion508).
To be clear, as of this moment, there is no binding law or technical standard in the United States defining website accessibility or requiring adherence to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG 2.0”). Issued by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, WCAG 2.0 is a globally recognized, technology-neutral standard for web content. However, these guidelines do not carry the force of law in the United States. In fact, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) does not even mention “Internet” or “website accessibility” and does not provide any concrete website accessibility legal requirements.
There are two main legal justifications, though very vague and confusing, for the onslaught of legal demands and lawsuits:
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) published the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design in September 2010. These standards state in very vague terms that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities, but they fail to clearly define concrete guidelines and requirements.
- Section 508 regulations, which are an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and apply to all information technology, including computer hardware, software, and documentation, and also do not provide any concrete guidelines. In January 2017 the United States Access Board updated Section 508 standards and incorporated requirements that websites used by federal agencies must conform to the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which directly affect hotels catering to government travel.
The Department of Justice is currently developing regulations to provide specific guidance to the entities covered by the ADA, including website accessibility. Companies are encouraged to use the WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines as a guide on how to become accessible until the DOJ defines the regulations.
The situation is rather confusing and ripe for various interpretations and frivolous lawsuits.
What Does HEBS Digital Recommend?
In spite of the existing uncertainty and lack of clear mandate and guidelines for website accessibility, hoteliers should undertake all necessary steps to ensure that their websites are in all material respects accessible to and navigable by customers with disabilities, and substantially comply with the WCAG 2.0 AA principles. It is important hoteliers take these steps for the following reasons:
- Enabling all potential guests, including travelers with disabilities, to interact with and transact on the hotel website is part of the hospitality nature of our industry and makes solid economic sense.
- Abiding to new government standards for websites is a must for hotels catering to government travelers.
- Avoiding frivolous lawsuits and monetary claims saves time, major distractions, and precious resources.
At the minimum, hoteliers must ensure that their websites are accessible to and navigable by customers with disabilities, and substantially comply with the WCAG 2.0 AA principles including:
- The websites and its various forms and booking engine are navigable using only a keyboard or keyboard equivalent.
- Buttons and calls to action include adequate prompting and labeling.
- Alternative tags are present on all images on the websites.
- Navigational elements on the websites are properly labeled.
- The websites contain easily resizable text.
- Pop-ups are not used on the websites.
- The websites do not rely on CAPTCHA tools.
- Image maps are not used on the websites.
THE ACTION PLAN: 7 Steps to Ensure Your Hotel Website Accessibility and ADA Compliance
First, make sure your website vendor has undergone website accessibility training and certification and understands and complies with website accessibility and WCAG 2.0 guidelines.
For example, here at HEBS Digital, we have followed, and continue to follow, best practices in website design and website accessibility for over 18 years now. All HEBS Digital web designers, UX experts, web developers, and software engineers have completed rigorous Criterion 508 website accessibility training and have been certified by Criterion 508 Solutions, Inc., which is the most comprehensive ADA compliance consulting, testing, and training solutions company in the U.S., and is used by many Fortune 500 companies.
Second, make sure your property website is enabled to be read and navigated by screen readers, which are often used by consumers with a disability. Screen readers have been available and widely used for decades and today’s hotel website must enable these assistive technologies to allow travel consumers with disabilities to get the information they need and complete a transaction on the hotel website.
The easiest way to test your website accessibility is to use JAWS screen reader software, which is the most widely used screen reader technology, and ensure that users can navigate through the website using only their keyboard (without the use of a mouse). You must also ensure that users can
- reach the website booking engine using the website’s Search & Availability Widget and continue and complete the booking process;
- navigate through the website and RFP forms;
- find descriptions of the property’s services and amenities;
- find the property location;
- and find property contact information (phone or email).
Third, make sure your booking engine vendor complies with website accessibility and WCAG 2.0 guidelines. You can easily test your current booking engine accessibility by trying to complete a reservation without using a mouse—just the keyboard.
Fourth, make sure all buttons and calls to action include text labels, since the lack of these may “hide” the function or purpose of these buttons or calls to action from the screen reader users. Form labels also provide visible descriptions and larger clickable targets for form controls.
Fifth, make sure to provide text alternatives for non-text content: All images on the website must have alternative tags, and ALT Tags should be added any time a new image is uploaded to the website.
Sixth, make sure all internal and external links on the site contain text descriptors since the lack of these may introduce confusion for keyboard and screen reader users. Empty links that contain no text prevent the function or purpose of the link from being presented to the user.
Seventh, make sure your website addresses the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) compliance at the property, and
- Create a Website Accessibility Statement page that describes the property’s efforts to ensure website accessibility and provides contact information for feedback, or to report any accessibility issues.
- Create an Accessible Amenities & Services landing page that describes the ADA-compliant amenities and services at the property, positioning the hotel as an ADA-friendly property. Include information about the facility’s accessible entrances, wheelchair accessible rooms, and other important accessible information.
- Create an Accessible Rooms landing page that describes the ADA rooms and their amenities. Make sure to include accessible room type, the number and size of beds, any in-room communication features, and the type of bathing facility (e.g., identify if the room has a shower or bathtub with handrails or a roll-in shower).
Though there is no binding law or technical standard defining website accessibility or requiring the hotel website to conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG 2.0”), hoteliers must take all necessary steps to ensure their websites are accessible to and navigable by customers with disabilities and comply with the WCAG 2.0 AA principles. This compliance will accommodate travelers with disabilities and fulfill government travel requirements, two very lucrative segments of the traveling public, and avoid expensive frivolous lawsuits.
Partner with a website vendor, trained and certified in website accessibility, to ensure your website complies with website accessibility and WCAG 2.0 guidelines.