Credit unions must navigate a great deal of unknown territory.
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The day-to-day business of running a credit union has its challenges and its rewards. One of the challenges is keeping up with constantly evolving regulations surrounding business practices and standards. Now there’s a regulation that wants all your attention.
The ADA and Your Website
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires certain businesses to make accommodations to people with disabilities, including such measures as wheelchair accessibility to physical locations, access to service animals and the use of braille. In addition to these physical considerations, Title III of the ADA requires businesses considered “public accommodations”—including financial institutions—to maintain an accessible website, which also affects mobile apps and online banking.
What does that mean? The answer is not exactly clear, but compliance is required to avoid any ADA penalties and lawsuits by consumers and activist groups.
Website Accessibility Lawsuits Growing and Expensive
Website accessibility is receiving more attention and becoming the target of an increasing number of lawsuits. According to one study, in 2018 more than 2,250 lawsuits were filed in federal court under Title III regarding website accessibility violations—more than three times the number in 2017. These account for more than 22 percent of all ADA lawsuits filed.
The lawsuits alleged that plaintiffs with a disability could not use websites because they were not coded to work with assistive technologies like screen readers or otherwise accessible to them. Suits were filed in 14 states, with New York and Florida leading the pack by a wide margin. Not all of the lawsuits were targeted at banks and credit unions, but the statistics show that the risk of exposure is growing.
The cost of an ADA lawsuit can add up quickly. Engaging a lawyer can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and a website rebuild or re-architecture can be pricey. Aside from financial exposure from legal action, the inability to accommodate members with disabilities makes them struggle to conduct banking business online or via a mobile app.
The Need for Electronic Compliance With ADA
Electronic delivery of information is vital to almost everyone in today’s world and our dependence on digital accessibility to money will only continue to grow. ADA-accessible websites and mobile applications allow consumers with disabilities to enjoy a greater level of independence.
The ADA states, “Many people with disabilities use ‘assistive technology’ to enable them to use computers and access the Internet. Blind people who cannot see computer monitors may use screen readers–devices that speak the text that would normally appear on a monitor. People who have difficulty using a computer mouse can use voice recognition software to control their computers with verbal commands. People with other types of disabilities may use still other kinds of assistive technology. New and innovative assistive technologies are being introduced every day.”
It goes on to say that poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some from entering. Designers may not realize how simple features built in to a web page can assist someone who, for instance, cannot see a computer monitor or use a mouse. The same goes for mobile apps.
Conforming to Vague Guidelines
ADA-compliant website accessibility has been a challenge for credit unions over the past few years. Current U.S. Department of Justice guidelines are vague and do not account for recent technological advancements, nor do they provide clear guidance on online banking or mobile apps. This leaves credit unions exposed. And with no clarification on the horizon, credit unions are left to mitigate risks, avoid fines and dodge opportunistic attorneys looking to file lawsuits.
According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, DOJ has frequently cited such recommendations as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0 as acceptable standards for accessibility. Yet, ironically, even though the current administration’s DOJ had previously promised to begin using WCAG 2.0 as its formal standard for web accessibility, it recently included this action as part of the department’s “inactive list,” which means that it’s not likely to be adopted in the near future, according to the BOIA. As a result, a clear standard to judge an organization’s web accessibility will continue to be interpreted, and the number of ADA website lawsuits is not expected to slow down any time soon.
Next Steps to Protect Your Credit Union
Learning more about how others are proactively addressing ADA compliance can give you and your team a starting point for your own plan of action. Fellow credit union leaders and website subject matter experts can also be a great place to start to learn what works and what doesn’t. Some credit unions do a free assessment on a regular basis, and then hire a more thorough professional assessment once or twice a year. From there, your credit union can begin making its own roadmap, including accounting for the fact there will likely be many forks in the road along the way until firm guidelines and standards are put into place and as technology advances.
Michele L. Yurcich is Solution Marketing Lead, Retail Banking, North America Community Markets for Finastra, Lake Mary, Florida.