Since 2014, at least four major healthcare companies have been named in website accessibility lawsuits for violations of Title III guidelines in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title III requires that websites be made accessible to people with disabilities who rely on screen readers, voice or keyboard navigation to make sites useable.
These lawsuits reflect a societal shift towards conducting the business of our daily lives online, but they also reveal an unpleasant truth: healthcare providers are not taking the lead in making their websites accessible to customers with disabilities, when they should be even more vigilant about doing so than other businesses.
Businesses should comply with accessibility guidelines because it’s the right thing to do, but there is another very important reason why extra care is necessary for healthcare providers, and that is the trend toward making more and more services available online.
The shift to online care creates more situations where conscientious adherence to web accessibility guidelines is crucial to ensuring that people with disabilities receive the same level of care as their friends and neighbors.
People With disabilities have a greater need for online care
Companies like Alpha and DrSays provide a range of services online; they order labs, provide audio and video consultations, and give prescription refills without the inconvenience or wait times of an office visit.
These services promise convenient care that may prove especially helpful to the elderly or those with disabilities that limit mobility. And it’s not just online only services like these that offer such conveniences. It’s extremely common today to consult with a nurse or refill a prescription online, even at the most traditional and long-established medical practices.
As online healthcare services become ever more commonplace, businesses that neglect to make their websites accessible to everyone could find themselves slapped with some pretty hefty fines. Penalties can be as high as 150K, or even more, depending on the nature and number of the compliance issues. And when it comes to accessibility compliance, healthcare companies whose customers trust them with their health — and sometimes their very lives — may tend to come under more intense scrutiny by regulatory agencies than other types of businesses.
We have a societal expectation that those we look to for healthcare will make the well-being of all the people they serve a priority. Besides, who benefits more from access to healthcare services in the comfort and safety of their homes than people with disabilities?
A doctor’s office is a “place of public accommodation”, so her website should be too
To be Title III-compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses have to acknowledge when they fall under the heading of “places of public accommodation”. Doctors’ offices, for example, are open to the general public and are therefore considered places of public accommodation. But since the ADA guidelines were first written in 1991, they don’t go far enough in considering the accessibility of online “public spaces”, like those same doctors’ websites.
This means that when it comes to websites, the rules for ADA compliance are still a bit murky. The boundaries of compliance are still being tweaked and refined. But it seems safe to say that eventually, websites will come more and more to be regarded as the “places of public accommodation” that they in fact are.
Most people expect admittance to any site they choose to explore without hesitation. It is taken for granted that everything the site has to offer will be readily and easily available. In truth, if a site takes a bit too long to load — an increasingly unusual occurrence — most users are quickly on to the next option.
Imagine that a long and tedious search for a useable site is the norm instead of the exception, and you have an idea of what people with disabilities go through in the course of an ordinary Google search. Now imagine that same search for a useable site when the stakes are higher and the user needs to buy medical supplies or order important lab tests.
Online information and services should be effortlessly available to everyone. Everyone deserves to have immediate and easy access to public spaces, especially when those spaces are crucial to receiving something as important as healthcare. And it may not yet be legally recognized as such, but today there is truly no space that is more a “place of public accommodation” than the World Wide Web.
Optimizing healthcare sites for people with disabilities
For many healthcare providers, making their websites accessible feels financially and technologically out-of-reach. It can cost thousands just to get websites up to a barely acceptable standard, making these kinds of overhauls prohibitively expensive for many smaller medical practices.
Some providers have made the transition to ADA compliance easier by using affordable tools like accessiBe, an automated AI solution that quickly makes websites fully accessible and doesn’t require any technological know-how to implement.
Any accessibility upgrade, however it is done, should begin with some empathetic brainstorming. In imagining the redesign, it’s helpful to ask questions like, “If a patient couldn’t see the screen, what information would he need to refill his prescription as easily and efficiently as a seeing person?”
In addition to empathy, these four main principles of accessibility are great guidelines for businesses that want to determine whether or not their websites are fully accessible:
It must be perceivable. That is, it can’t be imperceivable by all of a user’s senses. So, for example, if a person is blind, information must be perceivable by one or more of his other four senses.
It must be operable. In other words, a website’s interface cannotcall for interaction that requires the use of an impaired sense. So, as an example, if a user is visually impaired there cannot be any operations that she would need 20/20 vision to perform.
It must be understandable. Users must be able to understand the information presented and they must also clearly understand how to use the website’s interface. This means that there must be attributes that allow screen readers to interpret pronunciation rules — depending on the user’s language — so that he can easily understand what is being said.
It must be “robust”. This means that content must be adaptable to a variety of assistive technologies, as well as adaptable to changes and advancements in those technologies. Technologies evolve fast, and one of the biggest challenges for businesses trying keep their websites accessible is keeping up with the evolution of these technologies.
It’s all about user experience
Again, while it’s essential for healthcare providers to address the above principles in order to avoid ADA compliance lawsuits and budget-busting fines, the most important objective should always be to make the experience of using your site as organic and seamless as possible for all who visit, including people with disabilities.
Healthcare companies, with their focus on caring for people and promoting well-being have a particular responsibility to make their services as accessible as possible to everyone. Doing this is not just good for business, it’s the right thing to do.
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