Many Modern Firm clients have asked us recently about website compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Indeed, Chicago attorney Gordon Walton has very recently written in his blog about lawsuits over website accessibility. And the folks at Michigan law firm Johnson, Rosati, Schultz & Joppich were among several who posed the very good question: how can videos on a website comply with the ADA?
The blunt answer to the question "Is my website ADA compliant?" is: no one knows with absolute certainty. But the topic has been the subject of research and action by The Modern Firm for some time now. So here's the official TMF primer!
The reason we can't know with certainty whether a website meets ADA requirements is because, simply: as yet, there are none. And whether or when official guidance will be issued is anyone's guess.
First things first: yes, a private law firm is generally considered a "service establishment," and thus a "public accommodation" governed by Title III of the ADA. The ADA, itself, does not specifically address websites. But the Department of Justice has asserted that websites must comply with the ADA. The federal courts, themselves, don't all agree on the matter. But lawsuits by blind and other differently abled plaintiffs asking for accessible websites continue, including against organizations from Home Depot and J.C. Penney to the National Basketball Association.
So, here's the rub. The DOJ, some courts, and our desire to serve each one of our potential clients all lead to the conclusion that we should make our websites accessible to visually impaired and other disabled users. But there aren't actually any official ADA or DOJ rules on how a website should do so. And, although the DOJ under President Obama promised rules by 2018, some suspect the initiative will be scrapped under President Trump's executive order on reducing regulation. The DOJ is, however, currently continuing work on ADA Title II requirements for website accessibility for state and local governments, which may prove instructive.
What do we do in the meantime?
Well, in the meantime, we are not without guidance. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been in the process of establishing guidelines for website accessibility through its Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). (The current gold standard for accessibility is said to be achieving WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance.) Here are some of the basic goals:
Provide text alternatives for non-text content. How does a visually impaired person navigate a website? Often it's through text-oriented screen readers. Screen readers can't "read" pictures, but a website's HTML can have "alt text" (alternative text) for images that describe the content of the image. So, for instance, when the reader encounters a headshot of an attorney on their biography page, it would tell the user "Photograph of Attorney John Smith" if that "alt text" was programmed into the website code.
Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia. For video — discussed further below — use closed captioning or provide transcripts.
Make all functionality available from a keyboard. Screen reading programs generally allow visually impaired users to navigate websites using keyboard shortcuts to jump from link to link, to move from heading to heading, or to scroll down the page. To work best with such programs, a page needs to be well structured from a programming standpoint, so that the program can move from top to bottom through the page of content. This means that the website's menus should be text based, not images or animations. Also, the body of the page should make proper use of headings so that the user can easily jump from section to section if they want to "skim" the content.
If you're the checklist type — and want to get deep into these issues! — you might want to take a look at the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments.
Wondering if you're covered? Don't miss our final section here on whether your website is friendly to all your potential clients — and what The Modern Firm is doing to help.
In a moment, we'll turn to a fuller discussion of making video content accessible. But first, an important point: accessibility is often the best basic marketing you can do for your firm. This is because accessibility, particularly for video content, can benefit a whole range of audiences, including search engines.
As you'll see, as an element of video accessibility, we recommend closed captions as well as accompanying every video with a static text alternative such as a transcript of the video. Not only does this benefit visually- and hearing-impaired site visitors, it ends up being better for SEO and marketing to wider audiences, generally. Why?
First, when search engines index your website, they read the text — Google's web crawling bots are not sitting with tiny bowls of popcorn watching your video content, no matter how awesome it is. So, having a transcript pulls out the content that's locked up in a video, putting it in a text-based format that search engines can parse and potentially offer to your clients in search results for the relevant subject matter.
Second, transcripts and closed captioning are great for clients of all kinds: people who just prefer them, forgot their headphones, or are otherwise in a situation where audio isn't something they can easily access. Transcripts, moreover, assist potential clients who need to take in content at a pace slower than the speed of real-time video with closed captions, such as folks for whom English is a second language or who — because of age, brain injury, or learning challenges — get more out of information if they can go at their own pace.
Getting a little deeper into video content now, the W3C has specific guidelines for web accessibility as it relates to video. Long story short: TMF's opinion is that one should, at a minimum, add closed captions to your videos and/or provide transcripts. If a video is more than a "talking head" piece with one or a few people talking on screen, providing audio descriptions is also a good practice.
We'll look briefly at each option. If you prefer the whole, longer story on the legal landscape and accessibility options, you might like this white paper from 3PlayMedia on How the ADA Impacts Online Video Accessibility.
Closed captions. Closed captions are primarily for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. These captions appear at the bottom of the video screen and are time-synced to the audio on the screen. Closed captions can require a specific machine to decode and show them, or they may be toggled on intentionally on particular video platforms. Thus, they are called "closed" because they're only displayed to a closed group of people. "Open captions" are captions that are baked into the production of the video.
There are automatic captioning services that will likely get you most of the way there for the captions, such as services offered by Rev.com. You can also manually add captions through YouTube or Vimeo.
Audio descriptions. Audio descriptions are primarily for people who have visual impairments. They consist of voiceover explanations of what's happening on the screen. These are less often critical for our law firm clients, since most of the video content we use consists of either an attorney or a former client simply speaking to the camera. (When you start working parkour into your video presentations, however, we'd better talk.) Surprisingly, Youtube and Vimeo — two major players in online video as of 2017 — don't yet include support for full audio descriptions.
A full, moment-to-moment audio description can be distinguished from a very basic description of a video's content, however. Such basic descriptions are still useful for any information that isn't otherwise stated in text and is important to the video's context, such as: who is speaking, where they are, etc. Like: "Former client, Maria Smith, seated in her living room." Or: "Attorney Jada Jones, standing in her office, wearing a chicken costume." A basic description like this may even simply be added to the alt text for the video.
Transcriptions. Finally, a transcription for your videos creates added benefits for many site visitors. Not only can a transcription be sight read, but it can be accessed by any technology that converts text for particular users — i.e. by tech that reads aloud or converts to Braille. Further, while closed captions and audio descriptions must be time-synced to what's happening on the screen, static text like a transcript allows a person to review the information at their own pace. There are various services that can transcribe videos at a dollar or two a minute and guarantee 99% accuracy. Rev.com is a good option, as is TranscribeMe.
An alternative to transcription, that can generally serve all the same purposes — particularly for informational videos (i.e. Video FAQs) — is including a complementary article on the same topic as the video.
If your website was designed by The Modern Firm, most of the accessibility recommendations discussed here were built into your site from Day 1. Older sites (2011 and earlier) may require some work to bring video accessibility and programming up to speed, however. Meanwhile, TMF is committed to staying on top of best practices for ensuring access to the web for differently abled users.
Questions? Existing clients can contact our support team at firstname.lastname@example.org with specific inquiries about their websites. If your firm needs a new website and want to work with a law firm website designer attuned to accessibility issues, contact us!