If you're in the business of eCommerce, do you need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? The answer is yes if you're providing products and services on your website without reasonable accommodations for individuals with a wide range of limitations, including blindness, hearing loss, mobility concerns, cognitive issues, mental impairment or other concerns.

For example, when your eCommerce site is easy to navigate for persons without impairments, but contains a number of challenging features that make it difficult or impossible for a disabled person to use, then you need to reassess and redesign the website for better accessibility – or face the risk of lawsuits or even loss of business if you don't.

The risk of lawsuits is increasing

According to the legal experts of Seyfarth Shaw, lawsuits involving website access and ADA-related complaints have been hitting "record numbers." Seyfarth Shaw said plaintiffs filed 4,965 federal ADA Title III lawsuits in just the first six months of 2018, as compared to 7,663 for all of 2017. Some major globally known companies have been hard-hit by ADA litigation in recent years, including Nike, Amazon, Rolex, Fox News, Burger King, Hershey, CNN, Porsche and others. It's impossible to estimate how many thousands or millions of dollars were involved since many of the settlements were done out of court. But, between attorneys' fees, court fees and the cost of damages ultimately paid out, it's definitely a very expensive proposition.

But even if you never find yourself in court, do you really want to alienate or disenfranchise potential customers? One of the big factors in the success of the eCommerce industry is the fact that web sellers provide people with a more convenient means of shopping, without ever setting foot in an actual store.

Those who have physical or mental impairments or are differently abled, of course, find that concept to be extremely attractive – provided the website is functional enough for their needs. If it's not, they'll quickly take their business elsewhere, to competitors who do offer online access without obstacles or difficulties.

How do you design a website for ADA accessibility?

Man peering over computer screenMaking your eCommerce site ADA accessible takes special expertise.

While there are no actual state or federal regulations in place that lay out specific measures to take, there are a number of things you can do to make things easier for your eCommerce site visitors. Basically, you'll want to think outside of the box in terms of layout, design, pictures, text and web "special effects" – the computer code that's responsible for things like pull-down menus, online forms, multimedia, links to other pages or sites, error messages, downloadable materials and so forth.

Here are a few helpful suggestions to get you started:

Add descriptions to images. Many people with vision limitations are unable to see the photos or artwork on your web pages. They rely on screen readers to describe the images. For them, you'll need to be consistent about adding captions or "alt text" or "alt tags" to accompany every picture or video. That way, their screen reader will tell them "photograph of office chair," for example – or "link to checkout page."

Transcribe your multimedia. If you do have embedded video presentations for testimonials or product demonstrations, consider providing a text transcript of what's said on-camera. Hearing-impaired users will appreciate being able to understand narration that's otherwise inaudible or inaccessible.

Assure keyboard access. Don't take it for granted that everyone has a mouse, stylus or other input device. Make sure that your entire site can be navigated with the use of a keyboard.

Error messages that make sense. When a shopper submits a form, and the computer code finds a problem with the information supplied, provide a helpful, friendly error message that's more specific and describes what's needed, instead of simply "402 error" or some other computer-speak gibberish.

Make it mobile friendly. An added factor in eCommerce these days is the increase in people shopping by phone, rather than their computer. So take into account the special needs of disabled individuals trying to access your site by smartphone. Just because the site works on conventional computers doesn't mean there aren't any glitches in the mobile version. Even the on-screen shorthand many people take for granted – such as three short horizontal bars indicating an additional menu – may not be obvious to disabled users.  

Consult a supplier who knows the ins and outs of ADA. It would be worth your while to seek out web designers and content writers experienced in building websites that are ADA-compliant. One example is Jagged Peak, which offers website design and creative services that connect with consumers on all levels, from experienced web users to those who are differently abled.