Ever since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, dental practice owners have become aware of their obligations to make their facilities friendly to disabled persons. For many, this required extensive office modifications. But since then, ADA compliance has factored into all new facility designs, leading to a state of industry-wide compliance.
But in recent years, there’s been fresh concern over an emerging ADA compliance issue for dental practices. It concerns an interpretation of the law as it pertains to dental websites. In the recent past, several practices have been sued by disabled individuals because their websites lacked basic accommodations for them.
The trouble is, though, that the ADA fails to spell out what a compliant website looks like, leaving the whole statute up to interpretation by the courts. So far, the only thing resembling guidance has come from the US Department of Justice referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as a model for judging compliance.
That document, though, contains 38 individual success criteria upon which to evaluate a website. That’s a tall order for dental practices, who don’t always pay for active website maintenance. So, to help them know what to focus on with developers, here are the five most critical web accessibility features dental websites should adopt to remain ADA-compliant.
The first and most effective accessibility feature that dental websites must have is the ability to navigate menus using only a keyboard. In general, this means making it possible for visitors to use their keyboard’s TAB key to move through site menus and make selections. It also means providing visual selection cues that make it easy to tell which menu selection is currently highlighted. The good news is that it’s simple to test for this feature – you just have to try it out. And if it’s absent, this should be the first accessibility measure added to any dental practice website.
Descriptive Alt-Text on All Images
The next basic addition to make is to add or improve the content of the Alt-Text tags of every image on the website. These are typically hidden text descriptions embedded in each page that describe image contents when you hover over an image or if the image fails to load. But they’re also used by screen reading software to help visually impaired users understand the messages the images are trying to convey. And best of all, Alt-Text tags tend to help with search engine optimization (SEO), so they’ll be a bonus to the practice’s marketing efforts as well.
Readable Colors or High-Contrast Mode
The next accessibility option to include is to make sure that the website’s color scheme provides sufficient contrast between text colors and background colors. This makes the site easier for low-vision or colorblind people to read site text without difficulty. If this isn’t possible due to existing practice branding, the next best thing is to include a high-contrast option that can alter the site’s text color for those that need it.
Use Scalable Fonts and Responsive Design
Every major web browser today includes a feature that allows users to scale up pages for easier viewing. But using the feature causes many websites to display incorrectly or appear broken. Most of that has to do with the use of non-responsive page designs and defined-size text. When you try to scale up such a website, the design either doesn’t adapt to the larger text or causes the text to remain the same size while everything around it gets bigger. If either of these things happens to a dental practice website, it should be fixed as soon as possible.
Avoid Auto-Playing Media and Navigation Elements
On countless modern dental practice website designs, it’s common to lead with a high-quality video or a slick graphic slideshow. But from an accessibility standpoint, both options are bad ideas. First, disabled users may struggle to access the controls of a video they don’t expect to see playing. And, it robs users of the time they might need to absorb the information the site is trying to convey. Since both things would be show-stoppers for a disabled individual visiting a website, neither should be included to remain ADA compliant.
The Bottom Line
Right now, since there’s no hard legal definition to rely on, all dental practices can do is make good-faith efforts to make their websites ADA-compliant. Doing so makes it easier to fend off any potential lawsuit, as courts have thus far declined to side with plaintiffs as long as there’s evidence that some effort to comply was made.
If your website is already hosted on WordPress, a great start would be using accessiBe, an accessibility startup that developed a plugin. If you’re just starting out, a good idea would be to follow and test using Google Lighthouse or pick an already accessible theme.
But the measures listed here are just the minimum effort dental practices should make. Chances are, stricter codified guidelines will be published soon. And the more accessible websites are now, the less disruption practices will face bringing them up to future specifications.