The internet was not what it is today when The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. This law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life – jobs, schools, transportation, access to areas that are open to the general public – and has been extended since then to include websites and web applications. Courts today are interpreting Title III of the ADA, which requires places of “public accommodation” like hotels, to ensure that their web presences are accessible.

A study published by Open Doors Organization found that American adults with disabilities spend more than $17 billion a year on travel. The hotel industry is crucial to American travelers with disabilities, and hoteliers should focus on strategies to meet their needs and confirm these guests can plan their travels and conduct necessary bookings online.

According to UsableNet (a website accessibility company), last year there were 2,285 ADA website lawsuits filed in the nation’s federal courts, an increase of 181% from 2017. A number of hotel companies have received legal complaints and lawsuits related to their websites not conforming to the ADA, underscoring the need for hoteliers to proactively ensure their content is compliant.

Tips to help hoteliers improve web content accessibility

While there is no binding law to follow in improving web content accessibility, there is a set of guidelines, known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), administered by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that help make websites more accessible for the disabled.

Publishing accessible content involves adhering to four key principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Hoteliers can use the following tips to address these principles.

1. Perceivable

Perceivable refers to how usable web content is and how it affects a user’s ability to find and process information on a website. To be perceivable, hotel websites should provide text alternatives to non-text content, add captions for videos, and ensure that content is readable by contrasting images and text.

2. Operable

Under WCAG guidelines, operable means ensuring that the functionality of a website does not impact a visitor’s ability to navigate and use the site. Tips for increasing usability of a website include making sure website functionality can be navigated by keyboard, providing a “skip navigation” button for visitors using a text reader, avoiding flashing images, and clearly labeling pages to help users understand where they are on the website.

3. Understandable

The aim of the understandable category is to ensure that website visitors are able to read, interpret, and comprehend all information and navigation on a website. To do this, websites should make navigation consistent, make text content readable through larger fonts and color contrast, ensure that website content loads consistently, and compose error messages that include a clear explanation and provide direction for correcting the error.

4. Robust

The robust section essentially means that the code used to build a website should function in the most common web browsers, so the content displays properly for all users. In order to be robust, make sure website code follows current standards, use standard HTML tags, and test a website with all leading web browsers, search engine crawlers, screen readers and assistive technologies to ensure compatibility.

Going beyond minimum requirements for hotel guests

Hotel managers are encouraged to go beyond minimum compliance levels and make compliance a priority. For example, providing extensive details of room and hotel accessibility features on the website is a selling point to potential guests and ensures they will have an accommodating stay.

For each individual Hilton Hotel, the company includes an “accessibility pack” – a web page listing all aspects related to accessibility including entranceways, reception areas and wheelchair friendly paths throughout the hotel. These packs make planning a trip or getaway stress-free for guests with disabilities, as they will know exactly what to expect at the hotel.

With these WCAG 2.0 guidelines in mind, hotels should not only consider the accessibility of their primary website but also other less obvious web content and applications. For example, Hoteliers should also make accessible digital collateral and marketing content including digital brochures, directories, publications, and menus. If this content exists in a form like a PDF, it must still be accessible. Common PDF issues include images missing ALT text, language settings, illogical reading order and tables with no defined header. Alternative compliant web software can be used instead of a PDF to provide this type of content to users and easily meet WCAG standards.

As lawsuits related to ADA compliance rise, hotels need to proactively meet website accessibility guidelines. Hoteliers shouldn’t treat this as a chore but instead as an opportunity to address guests with disabilities, demonstrate accessibility as a priority, and ensure that guests feel confident when selecting their hotel.