Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is a phrase that most of us know. With ecommerce and accessible website development coming to our attention, we’ve arrived at a time where seller beware – caveat venditor – is even more important to online retailers. Selling online has become a necessity for many businesses. With popular ecommerce platforms such as Shopify, Square, WooCommerce, etc. being so dominant, one might think that they’d take care of a big issue like complying with Federal laws.
We recently had a client come to us with a legal issue about their website. The claim focuses on a website that runs afoul of a Federal statute – The Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA guarantees equal access to all members of society. To quote:
“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination... Disability rights are civil rights.”
While the website is still very usable to order a product, even with a screen reader, there were enough technical issues for someone to find fault and threaten a Federal lawsuit. According to most sources, first time fines can be in the neighborhood of $50K with repeat penalties going up 2-3 times that amount. That’s not a healthy risk for one’s balance sheet.
The Legal Landscape for Accessibility
Since the ADA was written prior to the advent of the modern Internet, it doesn’t address websites directly. However, it does broadly guarantee the right of access. In the US, Title III of the ADA specifies what types of businesses this applies to. Check the list to see if your business is covered by the code.
In the EU, there is a similar regulation coming into effect June 2025. Item 43 of the European Accessibility Act requires products for sale to comply.
“This Directive contains exemptions for microenterprises providing services which is “an enterprise which employs fewer than 10 persons and which has an annual turnover or annual balance sheet not exceeding 2 million Euro.””
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were developed for this purpose. Naturally, they have evolved over time so you need to be sure to reference the correct one. WCAG 2.2 is the latest version of the code.
Life Without Point and Click Websites
For users with low vision, no vision, or limited physical dexterity, the Internet is a very different landscape. Most of us take for granted that we can look at a thing, move an object on the screen, then click on it.
The inability to point and click affects many people, yet most websites are not adequately meeting their needs – nor the letter of the law. To understand the pervasiveness of the problem, WebAIM conducted a study on the top 1,000,000 home pages in the world. They released a 2023 report on accessibility which revealed that “96.3% of home pages had detected WCAG 2 failures.” There’s more detailed information directly from the users in WebAIM’s Screen Reader survey.
Behind the pictures and links that most users click on is a whole lot of machine-readable information. When screen readers are pointed at a website, they look for specific types of information to help their human users understand what is on the screen.
Examples of accessibility related code include:
- alt tags – describe the content of images
- tab order – allows users to move through a form with the keyboard
- label – defines a label for several elements, like input, select and textarea
- aria label – covers all fields not defined by label above
- file names – screen readers commonly state the filename
- file descriptions – longer statements about image contents
- button labels – displays the action of a button, eg. order, unsubscribe, etc.
The solution available to help many of these users is called a screen reader. Screen readers are an assistive technology – an application installed on a user’s desktop computer or mobile device – that converts website text and labels into audible words or digital Braille. That allows a non-seeing or non-hearing person to navigate the website with the outputs provided by the software.
Ecommerce Platforms and Compliance
Zooming back out to solutions for website owners…
You might be thinking as I originally did that by using an ecommerce platform like Shopify a site owner would be in the clear. However, Shopify doesn’t provide this level of compliance with WCAG. Their Terms don’t mention ADA anywhere. So it defaults to being covered by Your Responsibility. They leave it up to the store owner:
3. You are solely responsible for the goods or services that you may sell through the Services (including description, price, fees, tax that you calculate, defects, required legal disclosures, regulatory compliance, offers or promotional content), including compliance with any applicable laws or regulations.
“Square is unable to ensure that websites built with our platform meet any accessibility compliance standards.”
Opencart has no mention of WCAG compliance on their website, but judging by the number of add-ons and extensions, it’s not reliable for compliance out of the box.
I couldn’t find a mention of WCAG disclaimers on woocommerce.com but judging from this very helpful blog post, they don’t guarantee compliance either.
WCAG Accessibility Compliance Scanners
There are a handful of tools that can review a website for you. Some are free and some paid. The free ones typically will do one page at a time which can be used for sites with few pages or those that rely heavily on a few page templates.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains a list of web accessibility evaluation tools.
For this client, I ran tests with several tools on a few pages to make sure we had the broadest possible understanding of the issue.
One scanner said that the store is compliant. Another said that there were two critical issues, so the site was not compliant. A third showed two errors which were different from those that the second reported.
This is somewhat frustrating for a site owner trying to be compliant because it seems to suggest that there is subjectivity in the rating system. I have no legal training, so please check with your counsel on this: but I think generally if you satisfy the requirements of the most stringent of these systems, it seems that you should be able to avoid trouble. An academic paper from the computer science department of Taibah University addresses this disparity, with limited recommendations.
Solutions for Ecommerce Accessibility
There are tools out there that require a subscription. They say they’ll fix your site with a sort of dynamic, on-the-fly overlay for a low monthly fee. For stand-alone websites, there are add-ons and plugins that help with these things somewhat. Even with these installed, there are a few remaining problems.
- One is that automatic software cannot reach deep enough to offer full compliance on all of the accessibility related code mentioned above.
- Subscription-based solutions represent an ongoing, never ending fee for what is essentially a band-aid. It doesn’t change your core website code and stops working as soon as you stop paying for the subscription.
While we aren’t experts in ADA and EU laws, we readily understand the reports generated by WCAG compliance testing software, and can take the steps necessary to implement their recommendations. Between adjusting the code on your site and giving website managers a small bit of training, we can provide a permanent solution to a permanent concern, and help you minimize the risk of crippling fines. “$50K with repeat penalties going up 2-3 times” is not a healthy risk for one’s balance sheet.