Preparing for expected website accessibility regulations will protect both brokerages and agents from litigation
The business of real estate has become increasingly digital, and agents and consumers rely on websites to share and find real estate information, market homes and conduct property searches. In fact, according to new data from the National Association of RREALTORS®, 95 percent of all recent buyers used the Internet at some point during the home search process.
For that reason, it’s important that all consumers, including those with disabilities, have equal access to real estate agent and company websites. That’s according to panelists at a session about website accessibility best practices during the 2016 REALTORS® Conference & Expo held here in Orlando back in November.
Panalist Alisa Carr, Leech Tishman, is a litigator and a real estate transaction lawyer. She said that while the Americans with Disabilities Act predates widespread use of the Internet and courts have been split on the issue, recent court cases have found that a business’s accessibility obligations do extend to its website and mobile applications.
Carr recommended that both brokerages and individual agents with websites familiarize themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (www.w3.org), which is a technical standard created by the World Wide Web Consortium to help make sites more accessible.
“It’s a very user-friendly website and a great resource to educate you on how to start to make your sites compliant,” she said. “Make sure your vendors are using these standards and understand that your site needs to be accessible, and not just navigable and pretty. Also, hold your designer to these standards to ensure that the site continues to remain in compliance as content evolves.”
Panelist Mary Brougher, Bender Consulting, explained that accessible websites allow assistive technology software used by persons with visual, hearing, motor, and other disabilities to augment content and make it easier to consume. Adding text descriptions with complex graphics, limiting pop-ups and flashing colors, including voice-overs that read text aloud, and pairing videos with transcripts are all examples of accessible website functionality.
“The goal is to engage a wider consumer base. It’s smart business to have the widest population of people to come to your website and learn what you do or what products you sell,” said Brougher.
The Department of Justice is expected to publish technical standards for website accessibility in 2018. Carr said that until these guidelines are published, real estate agents and brokerages are exposing themselves to litigation and shouldn’t make themselves a target by having a website that isn’t compliant.
Brougher recommended these simple steps to help real estate companies begin the steps to reach compliance and potentially avoid future litigation:
Assign someone to be responsible for website accessibility;
Develop and execute a digital accessibility training plan;
Conduct an assessment of your website/s and applications;
Document the ongoing status of accessibility efforts;
Work with third-party vendors to acquire and implement software and features;
Prioritize any content accessibility violations; and
Continue to assess online sites and tools for compliance.
NAR’s legal experts recommend getting out in front of accessibility issues. As a first step, site operators can contact their website provider to inquire about their site’s current accessibility features. A hired technical expert can also help site operators identify where their site might fail to comply. A simple feedback form also makes it easy for users to get in touch about any accessibility issues.