Website Accessibility and ADA Compliance for Restaurants

February 22, 2022

For restaurants, digital is a must

Those of us who are old enough can remember restaurant websites the way they used to be; many were works of art with smooth jazz playing in the background but were barely functional for finding important details like a restaurant’s hours, phone number or menu offerings.

We’ve come a long way.

Over the past couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a new wave of digitization. Many restaurants were closed for in-person dining and had to quickly pivot to delivery in order to stay afloat. For many, this meant new apps, websites, or partnerships with online ordering and delivery platforms.

Digital as a major opportunity for restaurant accessibility

In many ways, the shift to digital represents a big improvement from an accessibility standpoint. It’s easier than ever for people who are housebound (or who have difficulty traveling) to order from your restaurant. And for deaf or hearing impaired diners, making a reservation or making a delivery order is now possible without having to make a phone call. That is a big new market segment. But it also means that restaurants with inaccessible websites and mobile apps may force these customers to order from your more accessible competitor.

Restaurant websites must be accessible under the ADA

Perhaps even more importantly, maintaining an accessible digital presence is the law. Federal courts have ruled that websites and mobile apps must be accessible to customers with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the ADA itself does not mention web accessibility standards, most of the rulings have cited the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) version 2.1 at the AA level as the standard you’ll need to meet.

Restaurants and other companies in the food service industry account for roughly 10% of all private ADA lawsuits! A significant portion of those defendants have been sued more than once. Even before the pandemic pushed the restaurant industry further online, one of the most prominent website accessibility lawsuits under the ADA was filed against Domino’s Pizza because its mobile delivery app was inaccessible to blind users. At the end of 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear Domino’s appeal against a ruling holding it liable.

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Accessibility considerations for restaurant websites

Include descriptions for photography and media

Your website is your 24/7 always-on employee who is out there to sell your restaurant to potential diners. Naturally, you want the site to include visually appealing shots of your food or venue. When adding any photos to your site, you should make sure to include relevant and informative alt text so that users who can’t see the image will understand what you want the world to see. Similarly, while quick videos of particularly delicious dishes or your chefs at work can be a great background, you’ll want to make sure that users prone to seizures have a way to quickly pause or stop any autoplaying video or animations.

Avoid PDF menus

Many restaurants find it easier to post a copy of their paper menu as a PDF to the website and call it a day. It is definitely possible to make accessible menu PDFs. But it is probably easier to make a web version of your menu that is built to be screen reader accessible. This has the added benefit of making your menu easier to read on a mobile device as anyone who has attempted to read a PDF restaurant menu on their phone can attest.

One important note: make sure that the web version of your menu is up to date. Otherwise, you are not providing an equal experience to diners with disabilities who rely on the digital version. (You’re also likely to annoy customers who arrive at your restaurant to find a completely different menu than they expected.)

How to build accessible order forms

Once someone has made it as far as the order form on your website, you don’t want to do anything to chase them away. Here are some considerations to ensure that your order and checkout forms are fully accessible:

  • Field labels need to be coded properly so that screen reader users can be sure they know what they are filling out
  • All form fields including dropdowns should be operable using only a keyboard
  • It’s also a good idea for your forms to accept autocomplete attributes so that customers who have difficulty typing can have their personal and payment details autofilled for them
  • If a form submission has missing or invalid details, there should be a detailed error message in text (not just red outlines on the offending form fields)
  • Try to avoid CAPTCHAs if you can. While there are more accessible options, they can be challenging for visually impaired or hearing-impaired to fill out successfully
  • Allow customers as much time as they need to fill out the form. Putting the form on a timer can make it impossible for customers who need more time to complete an order.

Incorporate accessible technology in-person

Restaurants are already accustomed to ADA requirements to provide an accessible physical in-person experience. But accessibility is not just ramps and parking spaces. You also need to consider whether digital menus or ordering systems in your restaurant are accessible.

In response to labor shortages, many restaurants have introduced tablet based ordering systems while others have attempted to improve hygiene by replacing paper menus with QR codes linking to a digital version of the menu. This is actually an accessibility improvement off the bat since digital menus are far more usable for blind or visually impaired diners than a paper menu. Even if your restaurant is still on paper, having a digital version of the menu available on your website means that customers who need it can order on their own without needing someone to read the menu to them. 

That said, it is very important to be sure that the digital version of the menu is accessible. Just like on your website, taking a photo of a paper menu or scanning it into a PDF is a poor user experience for everyone and completely unusable for blind or visually impaired users reliant on screen readers.

Select accessible third-party platforms

For good reason, many restaurant proprietors choose to use third party platforms to host their web presence or power their online delivery system. After all, why reinvent the wheel in building your own?

When selecting a vendor, you should make your accessibility needs clear. If you hire an agency to design and build a website, you should verify that they are familiar with accessibility standards and include this as a requirement in your contracts. If you already have a site, you can find accessibility experts to identify and remediate any accessibility violations (though in some cases it may be more cost effective to commission a new accessible site).

If you are using a pre-built restaurant website platform or third-party delivery platform, you should also verify that the experience they offer is accessible out of the box and that the system contains warnings when your configuration choices can negatively affect your compliance. Ideally, the vendor should be able to provide you with a document called a VPAT that certifies their level of accessibility conformance. Remember that an inaccessible experience will reflect poorly on you to your customers. It’s also far more likely that plaintiffs will file suit against you (even if it’s the third-party service that is inaccessible.)

There are some restaurant platforms out there that claim to be accessible, but in fact make use of “automated AI” overlay software. It is extremely critical to confirm that your vendor does not rely on this kind of automation as their accessibility solution. Accessibility overlays are not reliable in remediating all accessibility violations and it has been demonstrated in court filings that some overlays introduce net-new accessibility issues. It is our position that websites using accessibility overlays are putting out a beacon inviting ADA lawsuits. (In fact, 25% of ADA lawsuits filed in 2021 involved sites using overlays.)

Where to go from here?

If you haven’t considered digital accessibility until now, what should your next steps be?

  • It’s never too late to make your accessibility needs clear to your digital vendors. And if you’re not satisfied, you can start looking for a competitor who is more reliable on accessibility.
  • Review your current website’s accessibility and work with your agency or an accessibility expert to determine how to become compliant
  • Document your accessibility goals and efforts in an accessibility statement; this page should be easily available on your website and can also offer customers a phone number or email to reach out if they are having trouble using your website.

Access Armada can help you find accessible solutions to grow your customer base and stay out of legal trouble. To learn more about accessibility and for a free website review and strategy session, please reach out.

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