a younger and older woman sitting on bed look at laptop of a Shopify website. The Shopify logo overlays the icon for web accessibility on back of laptop.

How Shopify Web Designers Use ADA Compliance To Boost UX & Performance

David Gibson

While legal risks often dominate discussions about ecommerce and accessibility, focusing solely on compliance misses a crucial point: accessibility is good for business. While this topic applies to all ecommerce companies, as a team of Shopify web designers specializing in web accessibility, this article is focused more on the benefits of WCAG compliance for Shopify websites, explores best practices for achieving ADA compliance, and highlights the importance of partnering with accessibility experts.

Why Ecommerce Sites Face Greater Legal Scrutiny

It's true that ecommerce businesses face a heightened risk of ADA lawsuits. In 2023, 82% of all accessibility lawsuits targeted ecommerce companies. This increased scrutiny is likely due to several factors:

  • Ecommerce websites are often much more complex and dynamic, than marketing or information sites. They are just harder to make accessible, and many simply do not invest the full effort needed.
  • The precedence of years of legal action has inspired individuals with disabilities to hold businesses accountable for providing equal access to goods and services.
  • The idea that everyone should be able to buy online is easy to understand. Buying online is so common that any judge or jury understands how important such access is - especially since COVID.
  • Many Shopify merchants fall for the Overlay Shortcut. Overlay or “accessibility” widgets fail to provide actual accessibility or legal protection. They’re now an easy target for trolls. In 2023 30% of all lawsuits targeted websites using an overlay.

Beyond Legal Compliance: The Benefits of Accessibility

While legal compliance is crucial, focusing solely on avoiding lawsuits overlooks the numerous benefits of building accessible Shopify websites. These benefits extend to businesses, seniors and users with disabilities, and the broader online community:

Upholding Corporate Ethics & DEI Principles
Embracing web accessibility underscores your commitment to recognizing the rights and worth of people with disabilities and the elderly, showcasing your enterprise's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This dedication plays a pivotal role in building trust and loyalty among consumers, employees, and business partners.

Elevating SEO
Adhering to ADA compliance guidelines significantly boosts your website's search engine optimization (SEO). Utilizing clear headings, alternative text, captions, and structured data not only enhances accessibility but also amplifies your site's visibility to search engines, broadening your reach.

Improving Usability and Enhancing Customer Experience
Making your website accessible benefits every user, extending beyond those with disabilities. Enhancements in usability, navigation, understanding, and interaction elevate the overall user experience, leading to increased customer satisfaction and fostering loyalty.

Broadening Market Reach and Increasing Revenue
Consider the demographic: the United States houses 61 million people with disabilities and 71 million Baby Boomers, commanding a collective discretionary spending power of $548 billion. With aging, challenges in vision, hearing, cognition, and dexterity become more prevalent.

New - Artificial Intelligence Optimization
As the digital landscape shifts from conventional search engines to AI-driven platforms such as Bing and ChatGPT, the importance of Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO) escalates. These sophisticated platforms, similar to assistive devices, face comparable accessibility challenges. Compliance with WCAG not only supports these technologies but also pioneers a new dimension in digital marketing, amplifying the significance of WCAG compliance.

Minimizing Development Expenses
Proactively addressing accessibility issues at the beginning of the web development process proves to be more economical than modifying an existing site to comply with standards afterward.

By understanding the benefits that experienced accessible Shopify web designers can deliver, businesses can create inclusive online experiences that benefit everyone, while simultaneously mitigating legal risks and boosting the bottom line.

Understanding the Risks of Non-Compliance & Accessibility Standards

While the positive aspects of accessibility are undeniable, it's important to have a basic understanding of the legal landscape for ecommerce and Shopify merchants.

US Federal Laws

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including access to goods and services offered online. Although the ADA doesn't explicitly mention websites, courts have consistently ruled that websites are places of public accommodation and must be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: This federal law requires all federal agencies and federally funded programs to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to individuals with disabilities. While not directly applicable to private businesses, Section 508 serves as a benchmark for accessibility best practices and can be used as a guide for achieving compliance with the ADA.

US State Laws
Increasingly, states are adopting their own anti-discrimination laws. New York and California are standouts and both go beyond the ADA by allowing plaintiffs to claim damages. 

  • New York
    In New York there are three New York State and New York City laws: New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), New York State Civil Rights Law (NYSCRL) or the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). These laws have broader definitions of disability and public accommodation than the ADA, and they also allow plaintiffs to seek monetary damages, which are not available under Title III of the ADA. More on NY accessibility laws.
  • California
    In California, their Unruh Act prohibits discrimination based on ability. The Unruh Act does enable plaintiffs to collect statutory damages with a minimum amount of $4K per offense (not for each individual violation).

International Laws
Over 50 countries have digital accessibility laws. By this analysis, 6 may effect US companies. The most significant impact has yet to come:

The EU’s sweeping European Accessibility Act (EAA) promises significant disruption upon taking effect in 2025

Mandating accessibility and WCAG compliance will be required for nearly all digital products and services supplied within EU member states, its influence will be far-reaching and while penalties have to be determined still, they are expected to be significant. Many are comparing the impact to the EU’s GDPR law and call the EAA the next GDPR.

Despite which country a company is based, if their website is available for people in EU states to purchase goods or services, then that company must ensure their websites, web applications / SaaS, or mobile apps comply with WCAG and the EAA. Same as GDPR.

WCAG: The Standard for Global Web Accessibility 

The good news for web designers tasked with legal compliance is that almost all laws in the US and Internationally have commonly adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the single standard for digital accessibility of websites, SaaS, mobile apps, kiosks, content and documents. 

By prioritizing WCAG compliance, you're proactively safeguarding your website from legal challenges not just in the US, but across the globe. Plus the huge bonus of access to global online markets.

Beyond Legal Requirements: Embracing Accessibility as a Core Value

While legal compliance is essential, businesses should not approach accessibility solely as a means to avoid lawsuits. Building inclusive online experiences demonstrates a commitment to social responsibility and fosters positive brand perception.

Additionally, accessible websites are simply better websites. Clear navigation, proper use of headings and labels, and keyboard accessibility benefit all users, regardless of their abilities. This leads to a more positive user experience, increased engagement, and potentially, improved conversion rates.

Best Practices for Building ADA Compliant Accessible Shopify Websites

Creating a truly accessible Shopify website requires a holistic approach that integrates accessibility considerations throughout the entire design and development process. This is in stark contrast to the "bolt-on" approach, which attempts to fix accessibility issues after a website is already built, and is much more expensive and time consuming.

If you are outsourcing the ecommerce design and development, select a Shopify web developer with not only extensive experience in Shopify development, but find one with experience in web accessibility. Yes, this may seem like hunting for unicorns, but they do exist (hint hint).

  • Get the team onboard: Success doesn’t start with a mandate. It starts with education. Make sure your team understands the risks and benefits of web accessibility so they “get it”.
  • Understand your target audience: Expand your persona development to include people with various disabilities. Understanding the specific needs and assistive technologies used by your target audience is crucial for creating a website that is accessible to all. At the very least have the team watch demonstrations of how people with visual impairments use screen readers in particular. Better, have designers and developers test screen readers themselves.
  • Design with accessibility in mind: Incorporate accessibility considerations from the very beginning of the design phase. This includes elements like color contrast, proper use of headings and labels, and keyboard navigation.
  • Develop with accessibility best practices: Utilize coding practices and frameworks that promote accessibility, such as using semantic HTML and ARIA attributes.
  • Continuously test and iterate: Throughout the development process, regularly test the website using assistive technologies and conduct user testing with individuals with disabilities to identify and address any accessibility barriers.

Assessing Your Shopify Website's Accessibility: Testing for WCAG Compliance

While automated auditing and page testing tools are essential throughout the development process, what is absolutely essential to understand is that even in today’s AI world, even the very best accessibility software is capable of only testing for ~30% of WCAG issues. That leaves a tremendous gap that only a qualified web accessibility auditor can fill. That’s where our Accessibility.Works comes in for us.

Design Process
The main thing for designers to be aware of is color contrast, avoiding the use of color to indicate purpose, and to ensure typefaces are adequately sized. 

Web designers can use a number of color contrast testers, which all work well. One we’ve long recommended is TPGI’s Colour Contrast Analyzer.

Development Process
As templates or components roll off the assembly line, they need to be tested. This is a great point to pull in an accessibility consultant to conduct human testing. It won’t cost much money and will save time and money downstream. Additionally these testing tools will be effective at catching low-hanging fruit:

Beta Testing
Once the site structure is stable and content is loaded, this is when you should conduct a full site audit. Again, since automated software will miss up to 70% of WCAG issues, you cannot skip pulling in a qualified auditing consultant to do a proper audit. Such a consultant should be not only well versed in WCAG but also HTML and front side code so that they can provide accurate remediation guidance.


Choosing the Right Accessibility & Web Design Partner

When selecting a partner to help you achieve WCAG compliance for your Shopify website, consider the following factors:

  • Experience and expertise: Ensure the partner has a proven track record and deep expertise in Shopify and web accessibility.
  • Process and methodology: Understand the partner's approach to accessibility and how they will integrate their services into your workflow. Be sure to learn what testing tools and process they use. In particular, will do they have an accessibility expert who can perform manual audits that include screen reader testing.
  • Communication and transparency: Look for a partner who prioritizes clear communication and keeps you informed throughout the process.
  • Cost and value: While cost is a factor, consider the long-term value proposition and the potential return on investment (ROI) from creating a truly accessible website. Remember, good accessibility provides good usability which increases engagement and conversions.
  • By following these best practices and partnering with a qualified accessibility specialist, you can ensure that your Shopify website is not only visually appealing and user-friendly but also accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities.


Last Drop

Investing in accessible Shopify web design is not just about complying with regulations; it's about creating inclusive online experiences that enable all visitors to engage with your brand and convert into customers.