If the New York Subway had to be ADA compliant

If the New York Subway had to be ADA compliant

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Broken elevators, muffled announcements, no Braille, and staircases so long it would make the magic beanstalk wilt with envy. 

It’s a typical New York City chaos and dysfunction that you love, hate, or (like me) both! 

I must say I do enjoy riding the New York Subway despite its exquisite flaws. The diversity is unique and inspiring, and I love that it is highly unlikely to be judged by appearance. People just don’t care! I can wear a hat made of yellow asparagus, and no one would give me a second glance.

As much as we like to celebrate diversity in New York, the transit system here is an absolute nightmare for people with disabilities. 

My dad experienced this when visiting. He used to play a sort of subway station roulette. He would close his eyes, point to a random stop, and then get out and explore the neighborhood he picked. 

As he got older, his legs started to refuse cooperation. His cane would happily assist him to a point. But the stairs became a problem. With only 29% of stations having elevators and a fraction working correctly, that was sadly the end of that game.  

I can’t help but imagine if the New York City Subway system was a website and had to comply with the current digital accessibility laws. It would be closed immediately. We would all have to walk, cab it, or pogo stick it. 

“Nearly 20 percent of
Americans have a disability.”

Access for all is our social responsibility 

As a digital agency and members of the human race, I strongly believe we have a social responsibility to ensure our solutions are accessible to all. And of course, there are the secondary benefits of opening up an online business to a significant amount of customers. In fact nearly 20% of Americans have a disability. That is quite a lot of potential business to lose if your site is not accessible. 

So if you are about to launch a website, application or e-shop don’t be like the NYC subway. Be nice. Make your site accessible. And read this amazing article to get a little background and tips!

George gets an idea

On a hot summer night back in 1990, an American president called George W. Bush woke up with a jolt scaring the shit out of his first lady. 

When Barbara yelled out what the hell was wrong with him, he replied that he would take a break from warring around in the Gulf and help the disabled for a bit. 

I wasn’t there that day, so I don’t remember if that was exactly how it happened, but in any case, the Americans with Disabilities Act was born. 

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA for the lazy of us, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all aspects of public life and all public and private places

It means businesses have to ensure they are accessible to everyone, even people with yellow asparagus hats! If you have a restaurant you will need to double down on wheelchair ramps, accessible toilet facilities, wider doors, access for assistant dogs, etc. 

At the time the ADA act was created the world looked a lot different than today of course. Mobile phones were the size of houses and computers cost more than the GDP of Andorra. David Zuckerberg was only six, and the internet was still in its infancy. So, the ADA law was purely an analog thing.  Today, the ADA applies to digital places like websites, Shopify sites, and applications. And this is where it gets complicated.

The Internet complicates things

As we all know, later in the 1990’s, something called the internet became popular and shops, entertainment, and public services moved online. 

People could now avoid grocery stores and screaming kids throwing Twizzlers at you. Finally we could stop standing in physical stores contemplating why we always pick the wrong line. 

We could pay our bills in the living room only wearing glasses. 

Pizza-wrapped giant tacos could be ordered and delivered before we could say cardiovascular disease. 

Everyone rejoiced and broke out in moonwalks. Well, almost everyone.

Not for everyone

When I was trying to get my American green card in San Francisco, the required documents were only available through their online portal. 

I remember this government site is complicated. Even for me with a degree in digital media, motor skills, and modest but sufficient intelligence.  

People unable to use a traditional operating tool like a keyboard or a mouse would have greater odds of trying to escape from Alcatraz. 

Do you remember the ADA act? "goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities"? 

With public services moving online, this is not only a problem for the disabled but also the elderly. How would you apply for government aid and social services.

Web accessibility confusion

Web accessibility is not mandated in the ADA rules and how the courts interpret it is still a bit of a mystery. 

  • Is compliance mandatory? 
  • What level of compliance was required? 
  • Who will enforce this? 
  • Would it be enforced?

So, very few websites take this as seriously as they probably should. 

It all happens on the web today, and we are all reliant on being able to access it. If not, we will have A and B teams depending on economic and health reasons. 

Americans do what they do a lot.... Sue!

Hot coffee?

One rainy New Mexican Tuesday, Ms. Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a famous burger chain drive-thru. Either she hit a defenseless armadillo or was startled by the lack of quality of the Limp Biscuit song on the radio. I am unsure about the exact details, but she spilled the coffee on her lap. She sued the burger chain, and a jury awarded her about $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered. Coffee should be hot. but not THAT hot. Yes, this is a real story. Look it up. 

I always found lawsuit culture in the US bewildering. But since the consumer rights group does not have much power here, it seems this is just how it works here. 

"It seems web accessibility is
only enforced through private litigation."

Civilized countries usually deal with this through government institutions. You make a complaint, and the authorities deal with it. In the US, it seems it's up to the private individual to call a lawyer if they find a toothpick in their spring roll and not necessarily any government instance. 

In theory, The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is responsible for looking at these violations. Still, it seems web accessibility is primarily enforced through private litigation. 

Lawyers, lawyer up! 

In 2018 Koalition revamped a major restaurant chain's website. Let's just say that ADA compliance wasn't the focus of their previous website or former agency. 

2018 was the year that lawsuits took off because those smart lawyers saw the opportunity to quickly scan thousands of websites and spit out cases like a tennis ball launcher. 

It was "Better Call Saul" level stuff, and the real motivation is still a tad questionable. Is this fair, and who benefits the most here? Why am I asking these questions!? We are web designers, not politicians. Let's focus on what we did to help our restaurant client be ADA-compliant. 

So, this breakfast chain was rapidly growing hip and happy, so our creative brief was about sassy colors, a bold layout, and a lot of dynamic motion. All this can make things a real challenge in the ADA compliance department.

But we made sure to tell our web designer what NOT to do. And you can too on your next project. Here we go:

If you don’t want an ADA-compliant site

  • Rely on color in your design for important parts and leave the approximately 300 million colorblind in the dust. 
  • Ignore contrast entirely, so you must be a young bald eagle to decipher a page.
  • Shamelessly discard typography hierarchy and have headlines smaller and paragraphs bold and big.
  • Dabble with the functionality that you can only use holding down the mouse key while pressing SHIFT-X-C-PQA at midnight on a full moon. 
  • Create rambling and inconsistent navigation.
  • Make assumptions that your contact form labels are labeled enough. 
  • Just design for one screen size so we can hit lunch earlier.
  • Make the design overly complicated and go against all simplistic, minimalist ideals. 

"Just design for one screen size so we can hit lunch earlier."

What to do

Wait, I always find it depressing to see a laundry list of things you can't do. For example, I despise those signs on the B42 Brooklyn bus. 

  • You can't play loud music
  • You can drink, or eat
  • You can’t carry explosives. Yes, you will get a $100 fine. More here:

Why not write what you CAN do. That would be so much more positive. The list should be:

  • You can enjoy the view out the window, 
  • You can take a nice nap,
  • You can and should call your mother for once.

So let's see what you can do to help everyone access your site. 

  • Enable image ALT tags.
    "Alt" tags are the descriptive text of an image. Go through all your product images and write a short description of what is going on. This should not be a novel, so two to three words are plenty. If you want to get fancy, use keywords here. This will help the visually impaired to use screen readers.
  • Add closed captioning.
    For any video, you have on your site make sure it has closed captioning for the people that do not hear well! It could be a how-to video on how to put on make-up for example. 
  • Transcribe audio.
    Same as number 2, just flipped like a flapjack. If you have any audio make sure it's transcribed for the hard of hearing. 

Things you might need expert help with (cough, cough, Koalition, cough) 

We are currently maintaining several Shopify sites. One of these had severe compliance issues before we could dive into the code we inherited. And yes, a lawsuit was pending over our client's head, so there was a certain degree of urgency. 

The litigator utilized a web accessibility checker service that automatically scans websites for accessibility issues. It then spits out a list of problems and provides your site with an accessibility grade. This grade was 66%. Your site must have a minimum average accessibility score of 90%. So we had work to do! 

"A web accessibility checker service is used to scan a website and determine its grade for accessibility."

We have our own accessibility scan software, and that is crucial here. It revealed a lot of issues that we had to remedy. Here are some that our clients' previous web developers had forgotten: 

  • All parts of a page must be keyboard accessible.
  • Content Headings need to be formatted correctly in the code
  • Shopify Themes must be built with valid HTML
  • Code should Adapt to the user's device and screen size
  • A site's language could be identified in the code
  • There should be alternatives and suggestions when users encounter input errors

The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are what we should be aiming for. The US Department of Justice's ADA website has more information about this.

The list was significantly more extensive than this, but I don't you to fall down the chair in boredom.

We have fixed all Shopify accessibility issues for our client and resubmitted their site to the checker. The new Accessibility score? 97%! 

Your Shopify site should be accessible to everyone! We can all party.

Closing statements

We have an ethical responsibility to make sure all Shopify sites we develop or maintain are accessible. This is the right thing to do, and it opens up your site to a whole new group of potential customers. 

And as Shopify Partners, we always stay on top of the Shopify platform and trends so our clients can focus on theirs. Shopify is always coming out with new features, and we make sure our clients are the first to know about them and how they can benefit their store. 

We want to help you succeed. Let us take the Shopify accessibility compliance burden off your hands so you can get back to business! 

Reach out to us today for a free consultation.