The web was in its infancy in 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Thus when Title III – which rules that businesses serving the public must provide equal treatment to people with disabilities – was enforced, it was typically in terms of making a building accessible, or allowing service animals on the premises.
Almost three decades later, web-based communications and technology have become an essential part of doing business. And large disability advocacy organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf, have successfully defended the right of people with disabilities to be protected from discrimination in this area.
Failing to Comply Comes at a Price
Again and again, the Department of Justice has made it clear that websites and mobile apps must be accessible under the ADA. In 2014, a settlement agreement with the online grocery delivery service Peapod1 directed the company to ensure its website and apps meet accessibility standards. Peapod also agreed to retain the services of a third-party web accessibility consultant who could provide ongoing monitoring.
Financial services are not excluded from this kind of scrutiny. Under a settlement agreement with Wells Fargo,2 which had failed to provide equal access to its customers with hearing disabilities, the company was required to take a number of corrective steps. Among these, it agreed to ensure its websites are accessible. Notably, Wells Fargo was also directed to pay up to $16 million in compensation for people who had been harmed by its ADA violations.
As the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division said in a press release about that case: “Individuals who have disabilities must not be denied equal access to the services offered by financial institutions simply because of their disability.”
Don’t Follow These Examples
Many other companies in the financial sector have since been found in violation of the ADA, and time and time again it’s been for the same problem: Their websites and mobile apps were not developed to be accessible to people with disabilities, or weren’t compatible with assistive technology – that is, the devices and software that some people with disabilities use to operate computers and smartphones.
Not only have these companies been compelled to take corrective measures that include providing fully accessible websites and mobile applications, but they’re also having to pay damages and penalties. Examples include Bank of America,3 national tax-preparer H&R Block4 and financial services broker-dealer Charles Schwab5.
It’s worth noting that the ADA is not the only regulation that guarantees equal rights to people with disabilities, and must be adhered to by financial institutions. In 2014, the New York State’s Division of Human Rights found 12 banks guilty of discrimination6 – and failing to comply with that state’s Human Rights Law – when it began investigating a discrimination complaint against one bank. The investigation widened and, as a consequence, all 12 banks agreed to improve the accessibility of their services, including fully accessible websites.
The Go-To Guidelines for Web Accessibility
Until the U.S. Department of Justice develops its own standards for what an accessible website looks like, companies must follow the Level AA success criteria of WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). These are designed to ensure a website can be easily used by people with different disabilities using different kinds of assistive technology. They’ve been developed by a consortium of experts around the world, and are widely used today. Here are a few basic features of an accessible website, according to WCAG:
- There are descriptive text alternatives (“alt text”) to all graphics and images, so screen readers can interpret them.
- Page titles correctly describe what’s on the page.
- Headings are marked up properly, so it’s hassle-free for people to get around the site using assistive technology.
- There is a minimum level of contrast between colors (e.g. text color against background color), and color isn’t used to give information – your website doesn’t display its best rates in yellow, for example.
- If the text enlarged (resized), it still displays the way it’s supposed to.
- Customers can fully operate every function on the website using only the keys of a keyboard.
- Fillable forms, drop-down boxes and checkboxes all meet the criteria for accessibility – for example, being able to use them with a keyboard.
- Bright, excessively flashing content is avoided.
- Distracting moving content, like scrolling titles, can be paused or hidden by the customer.
- Video and audio elements are accessible whether or not you can see or hear them – for example, videos are captioned, and audio is transcribed.
- The text of a hyperlink is self-explanatory if a customer skips to it and reads it out of context.
- Documents like PDFs and PowerPoint slides are all converted into accessible formats.
To learn more about how digital accessibility in financial services, download our whitepaper “Why Banks Should Invest in Web Accessibility.”
Web Accessibility has Business Potential
A National Disability Institute survey on Banking Status and Financial Behaviors of Adults with Disabilities7 points to web-based and mobile financial services as an ideal way for the financial industry to meet the needs of more customers with disabilities. These customers are traditionally underserved by the banking industry. But if financial products and services are designed and developed to be accessible, the companies that provide them can potentially develop long-term relationships in a large and loyal market.
In other words, this is a prime opportunity for the financial sector to reach a significant, yet traditionally underserved, segment of the population.
The American Federation of the Blind8, meanwhile, is telling its members that if they do encounter accessibility barriers on a bank’s website or app, and these barriers aren’t resolved to their satisfaction, they should seriously consider changing to a different financial institution. We can’t tell you how many banks have lost customers this way. But what we can tell you is that the number of American adults with vision loss is almost 24 million. And the number of people in the U.S. with any kind of disability is 53 million.
When your technology is made accessible and stays accessible, it sends a message to your customers with disabilities: that their rights matter, and their business is welcomed and valued.
Up-to-date technology also sends an important message to all potential customers, whether or not they have disabilities. It tells them that your financial institution is at the leading edge of technological advancements, rather than remaining static. That can be meaningful in an era when cyber-security and fraud prevention are increasingly top-of-mind for customers.
Financial institutions work hard to earn their customers’ trust. They should also work hard to keep it.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- settlement agreement with the online grocery delivery service Peapod. Department of Justice, 2014.
- settlement agreement with Wells Fargo. Department of Justice, 2011.
- Bank of America Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2013.
- H&R Block. Department of Justice, 2014.
- Charles Schwab Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2012.
- found twelve banks guilty of discrimination New York State, 2014.
- Banking Status and Financial Behaviors of Adults with Disabilities. National Disability Institute, 2015.
- American Federation of the Blind. American Federation of the Blind, 2017.