I first addressed the issue of ADA compliance and its impacts upon campground websites in early 2019. In the year since, it has become a recurring nightmare and just about everyone has been made aware of the ongoing problem. Campground owners and website developers have reacted, some have overreacted, and we have all learned a great deal in the process. Rather than rehashing the background of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, its implementation, and the case law history that has encouraged the proliferation of lawsuits against campgrounds and other small businesses, I would like to share some of what we have learned over the past year, offering advice on what you need to do to protect your business.
As the title of a seminar that I recently presented before the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA) would suggest, it is important to separate the myths and rumors from the facts and solutions. Right from the start, let me explain that I am not an attorney and, in most instances, neither are you. If you are the target of what might be considered a frivolous lawsuit introduced by a serial plaintiff and an opportunistic attorney, you need serious legal representation, hiring a defense attorney with specific expertise in these matters. Far from small claims in a district court, these are class action lawsuits entered in federal courts, where the apparent objectives are costly out-of-court settlements.
Lawsuits Have Addressed Both Title II and Title III Complaints
A recent wave of lawsuits randomly targeted campgrounds in the state of New York. The complaints allege violations of both ADA Title II (which includes website construction, including reservation components) and Title III (compliant facilities, such as accessible facilities and rental accommodations.) In fact, one of the most significant website complaints is a failure to adequately outline, in detail, the accessible features within a park. Of course, this in itself presents a Catch-22, where you do not want your website to present an admission of a failure to comply.
The lawsuits that I have seen reference the need for compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), even though these were replaced by WCAG 2.1 guidelines back in June of 2018. It is important to understand that these are only guidelines, since actual regulations were never released, as planned, in 2018. The lawsuits also reference the availability of “several screen reading software programs” for use by the blind and visually impaired, but then specifically references the expensive Job Access With Speech (“JAWS”) screen reader. Free screen reader software can be easily installed on any computer, and will demonstrate that the text is fully readable on almost all websites.
Trust the Competency of Your Website Developer
Regardless of which company you may be using, it is fair to say that if you are working with any of the major website developers serving the family campground industry, you can trust their competence. The greatest risks are when your webmaster is the man in the mirror, your nephew, a local computer shop, or the boy down the road. Remember that it is your business that is at stake. Your website must meet WCAG 2.0 (or 2.1) guidelines. There are online tests that may be run, including the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) and the PowerMapper SortSite Desktop website testing tool. Though highly inaccurate and full of false positives, they can represent a starting point for evaluation. They use different heuristics for essentially guessing whether or not a site is accessible. For example, some checkers do not know the difference between a missing alt attribute (a very important factor with screen reader software) and one that is intentionally specified as blank. Your webmaster knows the difference.
Presuming that you are taking a proactive approach and have not yet been sued, the following is a list of some of the most important factors to check on your website.
- Does your website include an “accessibility statement” that outlines how you are making a good faith effort toward being compliant (but NOT admitting a failure to comply)?
- Do you have “alt” tags (text alternatives) for every non-text element, not just images?
- There should be no text on your site that is scanned from a document and presented as a JPEG or other graphic file. Is there any text that cannot be selected by dragging your cursor?
- Are you identifying the site’s language (typically “en-us” to indicate “English” with the “United States” subtag), allowing text readers to more easily identify the language used?
- Does each page on your website have a unique and adequately descriptive title?
- Can the text on your site be resized up to 200% and maintain its clarity?
- Are all forms properly tabbed for easy keyboard navigation?
- Do your forms (including third-party reservation forms) offer alternatives and suggestions for input errors?
- Do your text and background colors maintain a high contrast ratio, avoiding text that overprints images?
- If videos on your site include any spoken words, are the videos captioned?
- Does your website allow users to pause and stop any moving content?
- Does your website avoid content that changes upon visual interaction, such as so-called “mouse-over” or “hover” content?
- Are PDF documents on your website tagged and compliant with PDF/UA (ISO 14289) and WCAG 2.0 standards?
Many of these standards have been long followed by website designers for a variety of reasons. For example, “alt” tags that are used by text readers are also read by search engine robots, and tabbed forms enhance usability for all users.
Talk with Your Insurance Agent
I am hoping that most people reading this article have not yet been victimized by an ADA compliance lawsuit. If you have not been sued, it is safe to say that it could happen at any time. It is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” it is your turn. Fortunately, every commercial insurance carrier serving the campground industry offers what is known as cyber insurance coverage that will provide coverage under these and a variety of other computer-related circumstances. Consider this a necessary cost of doing business, and contact your insurance agent without delay.
You should also be aware that, although frequently evaluated in visual terms that impact the blind and visually impaired, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also prohibits barriers to the deaf, dyslexic, or people with cognitive issues or learning disabilities. We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Many people are trying to capitalize upon the current fears and hysteria. Keep in mind that no website developer can build you a website that is guaranteed to be 100% ADA compliant (short of a site that consists of nothing but bold black text on a white background.) Avoid the temptation to believe that a compliance widget will solve your problems, even though it might help you and your webmaster to feel good. If you would like your website to include a tool such as the Userway Web Accessibility Widget, that is fine but keep in mind that it is not a substitute for proper coding and that it does not perform any functions that a handicapped person cannot already perform without the use of the widget. On the other hand, it might serve as one step toward potentially persuading a judge or jury that you are making a good faith effort at compliance.
Above all else, do not panic and overreact. Some people have gone to the extreme of taking down their websites or redirecting their URL to their Facebook page. Even temporarily, that will inflict major harm upon the search engine ranking that you have worked so hard to build over the years. You may as well disconnect your telephone or take down the sign at your entrance. We are living in a complicated world, where it is important to adapt to changing circumstances, not retreat into a cave.
This post was written by Peter Pelland