As financial services increasingly go online, providing equal access to services requires a new way of thinking about anti-discrimination laws. Here, we take a look at the basics of bank ADA compliance and digital services. We also provide a quick mini-accessibility test you can conduct on your own website.
A Financial Services Introduction to Digital Accessibility—and the Risks of Inaccessible Online Banking
Financial institutions are familiar with many Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements: Features such as ramps and ample doorway widths, auxiliary aids, and braille on ATM machines may come to mind. There’s less awareness, however, on how to make online material accessible to everyone, even as services increasingly migrate to a digital form.
Banks are often caught off-guard when told—usually via a demand letter or lawsuit—that their websites, applications, third-party platforms, or PDF documents don’t work well for people who are blind or who have low vision, who have mobility impairments, who are deaf or have hearing impairments, or who have other disabilities.
What is Online Accessibility?
Making online services accessible means making digital services and information available and usable by individuals who may not see your screen, who may not hear audio content in a video, who may be colorblind and unable to perceive your data and charts, or who may not use a mouse.
Digital Banking and ADA Compliance Lawsuits
When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the internet didn’t exist as it does today. Industries that are considered public accommodations, such as financial institutions, have largely adopted the ADA’s anti-discrimination requirements in their physical spaces and traditional communications. To do otherwise risks discrimination allegations, lawsuits or civil penalties, lost business, or media attention that highlights a real or perceived lack of customer service and inclusion. Making online services accessible has become critical as banks have enhanced their service portfolios with financial services mobile apps, online banking, self-service kiosks, and other digital experiences. And the same risks—including legal action—apply.
A surge of demand letters and lawsuits directed toward the financial industry, particularly in 2016 and 2017, brought online accessibility to the forefront, prompting the American Bankers Association Banking Journal to declare it one of the “compliance issues to watch in 2017.” Many business organizations expected that the Department of Justice clarify online requirements and guidelines through ADA Title III rulemaking. Instead, web accessibility rulemaking became “inactive” the summer of 2017, leaving clarification on whether the ADA applied to websites up to various courts. But banks can no longer look to Department of Justice rulemaking to provide clarity on website accessibility, at least not for the time being. In December 2017, the DOJ officially withdrew its Advanced Notices of Proposed Rulemaking for Title III, and the financial services litigation continues (Recent developments in other industries involve lawsuits against platforms and platform providers).
Several judgments have supported the idea that inaccessible websites and digital materials prevent people with disabilities from having similar access to information and functions as those without. Many require that businesses audit and remediate their digital materials to be accessible. Depending on the size and complexity of the website, apps, and documents involved, remediation can easily cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
One noteworthy court decision addressing website accessibility and public accommodations resulted from a first-of-its-kind, non-jury trial this summer. The 13-page verdict landed on the side of the blind plaintiff, with Judge Robert Scola, Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida finding that Winn-Dixie violated ADA Title III because its website was not accessible. Many legal industry writers note the ruling adopts internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 to determine ADA compliance, and that it holds the grocery store chain responsible for inaccessible third-party apps.
The WCAG (pronounced “WIH-kag”) provide success criteria for web and content developers to build digital assets in a way that removes barriers to access for a wide range of disabilities, including:
- Visual – E.g., color blindness, photosensitivity, low vision, blindness
- Auditory – E.g., deafness, hearing impairment
- Physical – E.g., mobility impairments, fine motor control disabilities
- Speech – E.g., stuttering, weakness, paralysis of speech-related muscles
- Cognitive, learning, and neurological – E.g., autism spectrum disorder, learning disorders, memory impairments
What are Some Examples of Bank Website Accessibility Issues?
Navigation and Authentication Processes that Don’t Work for Screen Readers
Many blind users use a screen reader, which audibly relays information about the website or file. But, if a web page is not properly constructed, information about images, menu options, page structure, and other features is either absent or poorly rendered, making the online experience confusing at best, and frustratingly unusable at worst.
For banking websites, the foundational act of authenticating a user to sign in to his or her account can be a time-consuming process. Here are some examples of why:
- Form fields may not be labeled in a way that a screen reader can interpret, so the customer may not know what information is required.
- Pop-up windows can appear without warning, never notifying the user that their cursor isn’t on the correct screen.
- Warnings about pending lockouts for failed password attempts may go unnoticed because screen readers don’t have access to that information if not implemented accessibly.
Keyboard-Only Navigation that is Erratic or Non-Existent
Often used in conjunction with screen readers, many users with visual disabilities navigate web screens only using a keyboard or similar hardware. The Tab, Enter or Spacebar, arrow, and other keys provide the sole means of navigating, selecting, and submitting information.
If the underlying structure of a web page doesn’t provide the proper cues in the proper order, the online banking user experience can be time consuming and daunting. Users may want to skip repeated information like headers and footers, or try to tab through a page in a logical order only to find that there are few cues to orient themselves on the page or help them find the information they need.
NOTE: See “How to Check Your Site for Keyboard Accessibility” to experience how this works.
Website Design Elements and Timing that Make Interactions Difficult
People with motor impairments also often use keyboard-only navigation. For someone with a fine motor impairment, spacing also matters. Small buttons or type, or actionable items too close together can prevent a customer from making selections correctly on either a website or a mobile application. Timed events, typically used for security purposes, can also shut out someone who may work more slowly to complete a form or field.
A Lack of Captioning on Multimedia
For a person with a hearing impairment, bank videos without captions leave that customer, or potential customer, unable to access information available to the rest of the online community.
How to Check Your Financial Services Website for Keyboard Accessibility
You don’t have to have a disability to use keyboard-only navigation. Having a keyboard-accessible website benefits everyone! To test your site for keyboard accessibility, select a website and disconnect your mouse, then try testing for the following elements:
- FOCUS INDICATION: Using the Tab key, tab through the site. Look for a visual cue indicating where you are. This might be an outline around a menu item or hyperlink, a flashing cursor, highlighting, shading, or other visual indicator. This is called testing for focus indication. Remember: If you don’t know where you are as you do so, neither will your users!
- COMPLEX OBJECTS: Elements such as page menus or FAQ section will often allow you to expand or close sections. You should be able to make these objects behave using only your keyboard. For example, menus with dropdowns should open and close using some combination of enter, space bar, or escape keys. Use the Up and Down arrows on your keyboard to expand menus and navigate drop-down options.
- SCROLLING REGIONS: For keyboard users, being able to stop and control a scrolling region is fundamental to good keyboard access. For example, a carousel on a web page should allow the user to pause the panels and manually page through them. Imagine trying to navigate to a carousel item only to have it change before you get there!
These are just a handful of ways you can test for improvements. As you run through these steps, weigh the intuitiveness of how you move about the page. Proficient keyboard and screen reader users will also be able to skip areas of content, navigating from headings or hyperlinks or bulleted lists, similar to how many might scan a page and jump to the section most relevant or interesting to them. All of this is possible and seamless on an accessible financial services site.
These and many other scenarios can leave community banks at risk of expensive and time-consuming lawsuits, reputational harm, and lost customers and business.
With roughly one in twenty U.S. citizens reporting a disability, an increasingly aging population, deepening reliance on digital services, and precedents that support digital materials being made accessible as part of ADA compliance, there is growing responsibility for financial institutions to assess how accessible their digital materials are and how well they embrace accessibility practices when serving their communities.
If you have questions about how accessible your web pages, documents, and mobile applications are, please contact us.
For Further Reading
- Successful Remediation Strategies for Websites Facing Accessibility Litigation
- The Practical Role of Automated Web Accessibility Testing Tools
- Mobile Applications and Litigation: Why Accessibility is Important and What to Consider before Launching, Part 1 of 2
- Mobile Applications and Litigation: Why Accessibility is Important and What to Consider before Launching, Part 2 of 2
- Digital Banking: Customer Service and Online Access (pending update)
Check Your Bank ADA Compliance with a Comprehensive Accessibility Audit
Whether you are proactively ensuring that your site or application is accessible to all or responding to a real or perceived legal action (e.g., a demand letter, litigation, Department of Justice inquiry, or other similar action), we encourage you to contact us for a complete website accessibility audit. We believe in quality manual testing against recognized standards such as WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 to ensure accurate audit results. Automated testing tools only catch 30–40% of known issues. By using the same tools used by individuals in the disability community, the audit will ensure a complete and thorough analysis of accessibility challenges.
To discuss an accessibility audit for your website, application, or documents, please contact our Accessibility Team.
NOTE: A version of this article on banks and ADA compliance first appeared in Compliance Alliance’s Access Magazine, January 2018. The modified content above provides guidelines on conducting a basic keyboard accessibility test, an update on the Department of Justice’s actions regarding website rulemaking, and related resources. Compliance Alliance offers bank compliance toolkits for community banks.