In this episode, Eric Stegemann sits down with EVP of Operations for Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, Jessica Edgerton. They discuss the importance of making sure your brokerage website is ADA compliant.
Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Jessica Edgerton, executive vice president of operations and corporate counsel for LeadingRE. I am excited to have Eric Stegemann here. He is the CEO of TRIBUS and has a, was a realtor before reaching the age of 20. So he has been in the business a long time and knows it well while loving his days in real estate, he knew there was a larger opportunity to build a technology oriented brokerage. In 2004, he created river city real estate, which quickly became the largest independent brokerage in the St Louis area. There he oversaw the development of numerous real estate technology breakthroughs that were well ahead of their time. Eric is regarded as one of the brightest minds in the real estate technology realm has spoken at a number of real estate technology events. You may very well have seen him at one of ours in the past and has also spoken at Inman connect to New York, San Francisco and NAR annual conference.
We see him everywhere and are very glad to have TRIBUS as part of our solutions group as well. So Eric welcome. Thank you so much today. We are talking about website accessibility. ADA real estate brokerage website accessibility issues have been around for a long time for our industry. In my NAR days, we heard about them quite regularly. Historically website accessibility has come under the umbrella of the Americans with disabilities act, which is protects people with disabilities, from dealing with public facing businesses that are inaccessible to them. So under the ADA, if you have a public facing business, you are required to take reasonable measures to make it accessible to people with disabilities. Now, once the internet came online, that was originally seen as a bricks and mortar have a ramp, make sure that people with, with in wheelchairs are able to navigate your, your aisles, things like that.
Then along comes the internet and there was for a number of years some, a lack of clarity as to whether the ADA applied to public facing websites, our websites, a place of, of public access does is public. Do public accessibility laws apply to websites? The answer really now is pretty much yes, across the board. There’s a little bit of haziness in some circuits, but the recommendation a hundred percent, I’ve never talked to an attorney that would say no, no, don’t worry about your public facing website, right? So this is an important issue. Why are we talking about it right now, given that we’ve been hearing about it for years? First of all, we’re all kind of still sheltering in place and opening back up to the public. There’s a lot of transition right now in our, in our industry.
This is a great time to be looking at your websites. Any changes that you are making or becoming a much website focused industry. This is a great time to be looking at accessibility for your website. Number two and more immediate, there has been a rash of accessibility letters sent by one law firm that have been hitting folks in Florida. We suspect that right now, it’s in Florida. It will probably be spreading across the country. That’s usually the way these folks work, but these letters are not your typical ADA demand letters in the past ADA demand letters and said, Hey, I have a client with a disability. Your website is not accessible to my client. You need to take remedial measures and you need to pay my attorney’s fees. Dozens, if not hundreds of brokerages in Florida have recently got a similar letter saying, Hey, your website is not accessible this time instead of the ADA, they’re invoking for housing.
So why does that make a difference? First of all, it probably means that there’s going to have to be some litigation around this more attorney’s fees, blessed my colleagues and the attorneys around. But another I won’t use the word alarming, but thing for us to watch is under the Americans with disabilities act, plaintiffs do not have the right to receive monetary damages. They get remedial measures. So you have to fix your website and you have to pay their lawyer. Same things apply under fair housing, but under fair housing, there’s also the chance that a court, if it’s taken all the way to court can hands down punitive damages as well. So plaintiffs are actually able to receive monetary damages under a fair housing legal scheme. So, all of that being said, even under these fair housing laws, the remedial measures that are probably going to be need to be taken are likely the same.
And that means that you need to know what to do when you receive one of these letters and you need to be talking to your brokerage web provider like Eric and TRIBUS. So one of the things that we would like to talk to you today about Eric is what you are seeing from a technology standpoint. Let’s take a step back and talk about what accessibility actually means. I think a lot of people don’t have a clear view on, on what you would do to make your website accessible and what we should be doing today, tomorrow, and going forward. So, Eric what does website accessibility actually mean from technical standpoint?
Well, I mean, it’s, it’s a collection of a number of different things that needs to be done on the website to make it visible or accessible or interact allowing the person to interact on the website depending on what their potential handicap might be. And so from that perspective, it can range from things such as making your website usable with just the keyboard. So for example, some people, you know, can’t interact with a mouse they can only use a keyboard or in other cases, you know, if the person might be blind, it might mean making your website able to work with a braille reader. And if you haven’t seen videos of a braille reader an amazing piece of technology that somebody built a number of years ago to make the blind, be able to use the internet and get the same information that we get.
It actually, it’s a little, little thing that sits in front of the computer. And, you know, as you imagine braille works it actually changes the little knobs for the braille as the person reads across that’s each one of the lines of your website really definitely check out a YouTube video of how these things work. They’re very great piece of technology that to allow the blind to be into the internet age. And so that, that could be one of them on people have visual impairments that aren’t there necessarily blind, but maybe they can’t read your website unless there’s a high contrast between the text and the back of the website of the background with the website. So there are a number of these different things and it’s not really just one thing. It’s, it’s actually a whole suite of items.
And I would tell people the best way to, to to start thinking about this is that the, there is a consortium of people that write the standards for how websites work or how HTML got adopted actually. And websites initially came into being the w three consortium is what it’s called and they have a standard called WCA G that talks about accessibility and they changed this guideline on a regular basis to update it with new standards, to help more people out. And th the current standard is either two or two.one for that standard. So I would definitely encourage people if you really want to read up on this topic to go and, and Google WCAG two or 2.1 and read up on, on the numerous items. You know, the ones I’ve listed are just a few out of 30, 40, 50 of these things that, that your website should be focused on.
So if in addition to looking at WCA 2.0 which I think is a good idea, but I don’t know how many people are going to have time to do a deep dive into it. It’s heavy duty stuff. What would you recommend sort of from a, a basic operational standpoint, what steps should folks be doing now? In terms of figuring out whether their website is compliant and any remedial steps they might need to take, whether they have gotten this letter, and I’ll talk a little bit more in a minute about what to do if you’ve gotten a letter.
So you know, I think there’s a number of things here, and I want to start by saying good accessibility of your website is not just a legal protection issue. It’s also just good business as a whole because you may or not know this, but between five and 8% of all online users use some accessibility setting in their browsers are on their phones. And it can be as basic as text sizing. So you know, if you don’t need accommodations to use a browser, you may have just accidentally increased the size of the text on your, on your browser at some point. And then all of a sudden, you wonder why all the texts on websites are car giant. But that actually is one of the accessible items in certainly in a list that you should pay attention to is you know, if you, if you increase the size of text, because, you know, as, as folks age, you know, he can’t read the four point font anymore.
And so you want to increase that size to be able to read what’s on the page a little bit better. And so you want to increase that now, a lot of websites, and I see this a lot in real estate, when you increase the size of the texts, particularly on IDX pages it ends up where we refer to in the, in the web space as blowing out the website. So what ends up happening is the text actually goes off the page where you can no longer read it. And that would be definitely something that would break WCAG compliance and accessibility compliance. So from that perspective, you know, that that’s number one is, is really to go on there and check if you, and by the way, if you have a math it’s command plus that you can do to, to increase the size, our command minus will decrease it in command. Zero actually brings it back to normal, a hundred percent normal, but use that command plus on a PC, a windows based computer it’s control plus, so control plus control minus it controls zero that you can use to check your website. And so if the tech starts blowing off the screen, you know, you have a problem that you’re going to want to talk to your web company about. So testing, yep. Texts would be number one number two is, can the website be used without a mouse? Now, there was Probably the biggest and the first of the, the cases that came out on this was Southwest airlines. And it flew under, flew under the radar sorry for the pun not intended, but yeah it flew under the radar for a little while and people weren’t paying too much attention to it, but they had to settle for, I, I think in the hundred million dollar range because their website, you could not book a flight on their website using only the keyboard. You had to use a mouse to be able to use their website. So, another thing to check on your website is can you access your menus? So can you navigate around the site using just your keyboard? And if you, if you haven’t had accessibility issues, you may not know that a big proportion of the population that’s the way of mood hovering around, you know, my dad had Parkinson’s disease.
My dad never, while you had Parkinson’s, he lived with it for 20 years. He didn’t have the dexterity with Parkinson’s disease to be able to control a mouse. His hand would move constantly, but he could have used a keyboard to move around on the website. And so you may not know, but if a website is built correctly to the standards, you should be able to use the tab key on your keyboard to move from menu, to menu or item to item on there and also be able to get through forms. So, for example, if somebody wanted to do an IDX search or search on your website, they should be able to get through every single one of those forms by using the tab key. So if you start with maybe the city neighborhood, et cetera, in a box and type in there, and they a tab to go to beds and baths and be able to get to the right number of beds you want by using your arrow keys.
So those are just a few examples and hitting the return key can process a form. It’s a few examples of something that I would definitely be paying attention to you, and if your website, and by the way, one of the biggest ways that Southwest got sued was you couldn’t do any of that. More importantly, when you try to create an account on southwest.com, you couldn’t do it without using a mouse. So that’s something else to keep in mind too. Can I create an account on the website without being able to use a mouse?
Oh, go ahead. No, go ahead. I was going to ask, I love this deep dive into details because it really shows what people should be looking at and thinking of, and it has, and is a reminder of the human element here, right? Like the example of your father, when we receive one of these demand letters, it feels rolly, right? And you people use these words for these attorneys because, you know, I mean, it’s, there is a financial component that the lawyer’s going after, but we need to remember that behind these, these complaints, there are people who are frustrated by your website. These are, these are, you know, people. And so there’s a human element, but it’s also potential customers that you’re losing. So I love hearing the details. Is there though any technology that people should be aware of that, or, or resources for people to do a thorough scan of their website check, right?
There’s a number of websites that if you search for a WCAG compliance or accessibility compliance, now I fair warning. Almost all of them are trying to sell you something. So they’re going to sell you a compliant, a full compliance audit perhaps, or they might sell you making your website compliant. So just be aware that most of them, that you’ll go to these checkers or compliance tools, they’re going to, they’re going to spam you and try to sell you things. But there’s other great tools that are out there. You know, if like a tribe, when we build websites for our broker customers, we obviously build all these things in, but we use third party tools to help us with that. One of the reasons why is because we want to make sure that we’re staying up to date and there’s a lot, I mean, it’s, it’s definitely a daunting thing.
If you haven’t started at all or not your website, isn’t at all, WCAG compliant, you’ve got some work to do for sure. But we want to stay up to date with their standards. And so we use a tool called user way that we found to be very, very good at doing this. And it completely integrates with all of our websites and makes them pretty instantaneously accessible compliant beyond the standard coding that we do. And a perfect example of that is the high contrast I mentioned earlier. You want to make sure your website looks really it looks great in general, you build your website. Obviously no broker wants to invest in up looking website. But from that aspect, you know, if you have a person that needs high contrast to re text on your site, it may not have that same good look and feel if you go super high contrast.
But what you can do is use these third party tools to stay compliant and then only show the accessible site if the person’s browser is asking for that. So that’s what we do at TRIBUS is week before, you know, you can go through the forms and tap through everything. We can talk about, I would like to talk about all tags and just a second and things that we do with all tags that drive us that are there, but high contrast, you may not want for 90% of the, the browse with the visitors to your website or out there, they don’t need to see the high contrast version of your site. So you want to look one way for those folks, but when you go to it and you need high contrast for accessibility reasons, you can display that high contrast like and so use your way is a good tool. There’s a bunch of other tools that are out there. Most of them do a free initial compliance check. And so I, you know, check these away first.
Okay, great. Thank you. So we talked a little bit about the reasons why accessibility is important first and foremost, to ensure that people with disabilities are able to actually access your website. But what are some other benefits to ensuring that your website is compliant?
So TRIBUS has been a big believer in making websites accessible for over seven years. I actually was the chair of the business issues committee for NPR back in, I think 2012 or 2013, and this came up as an issue. But I, the reason why I got into it initially, wasn’t necessarily from the accessibility side, I stumbled into that being a good business, be good, just in general, to be a business in your community and, and help people out that have accessibility. But the reason I stumbled into it initially was because it’s actually good for your search engine optimization. So it actually helps your site rank higher if your site is accessible and that’s actually getting even more right now. So Google actually just made an update that actually checks your your usability of your website. And it looks at these certain standards that are out there, excuse me.
And if your site meets those standards, your site can get ranked higher. So we talked about being able to use a keyboard, obviously when Google crawl a Google’s crawler goes through your site, it’s going to use those types of tools actually to, to go through and find and submit forms and things like that on your website. So if it’s accessible, the Google spider can actually go through it better. So that’s number one number two, another thing that’s a, that’s a big one on this, and it’s actually where I started looking into this more and more, and kind of got into the rabbit hole is in all texts. So if you look at your website nearly no, nearly none of the broker websites, when you’re out there looking at them, have all tags on your images. Now we should probably mention real quick what an all tag is.
So when you add a image to your website, and this goes for any image, you add your website, the code that makes that image show up, and we won’t get to Kiki here, but the code that makes that image show up, you can actually add additional attributes to that image that are not necessarily visible to a consumer, but maybe visible if you have a Mount Stover image before, and you see the little box pop up that says what the image is, there’s a chance that that is coming from that all time. But Google also looks at that tag too. And then that all tag, the whole original concept around you all tag with so that somebody who’s blind can understand what the images or the video on your website, right? So if I’m buying and I see these photos on a website, I’m not going to know what those photos are other than, you know, my screen reader tells me there’s a box on the page, but if it using all 10 a, those folks are going to be able to understand what your website is about, better, because all of your images now have explanations on them.
But B it’s actually really good for your search engine optimization. So Google, they re I mean, image tagging and image captioning are getting much better these days, but, but still in 2020, here we are Google. When they see photos on your website, they’re not understanding necessarily that that photo is the master bathroom, which that master is a whole other conversation for a different time, But that’s that
It’s a whole other that, that Google going through, seeing that image on that site, they don’t understand that it’s the picture of the pool or the picture of the front landscaping. It doesn’t understand that, right? So it just sees pictures. And most of the time, especially if it’s coming from an MLS, those pictures are labeled zero dot JPEG one, not JPEG, two dot JPEG. So there’s zero information that Google can discern about these photos, but adding that all text is a way to tell Google, Hey, this is the kitchen. This is the bathroom. This is the whatever it happens to be. And it shouldn’t just be for your images that are IDX simple. We’ll talk about an arrangement. TRIBUS has set up that you know, as a, for a great company that will help you with this. And just second, but you should also do it for every image on your website.
So for example, the hoster images, and I’m going to give away an SEO tidbit to all of our competitors here. But when we add roster images, so your agent’s name’s Eric Stegemann and on your website, very few, if any of our competitors add the alt text on that image that says, Hey, this is a picture of Eric statement, realtor in blankety blank city, but there’s a great SEO tool that you can use right there to help that page rank higher, but at the same time, making your website accessible so that if a blind person goes to the website, they know that these are pictures of these realtors that are there. But going back to the IvX piece of this, so you may be sitting there thinking, and I certainly did five, seven years ago when I first got into this. Well, there’s no way we can, I’ll put all the texts on IDX images, because there’s just too many of them.
Number one, number two is how am I going to go through, am I going to pay somebody to go through and look at all these photos and make all the texts? You know, it’s unfortunate, the MOS is, are not providing this. And I would have my call to action here is to have MLS work on this and maybe require captions, but as a secondary option, TRIBUS made a deal with company called RESTB.ai that you may have heard of before. And they actually use computer vision to look at images and then tag those images with what’s in them. Now they can tag it as, you know, a kitchen who will you know, front yard. And they can even go beyond that to, to talk about it’s an updated kitchen, et cetera, but from the basic level of, of having these alt tags on there they’ll have that, that ability, if you, if you get a website through, try this, you’ll have that ability to get those captions on there, on every single image from the MLS and any image that you upload to your website.
Really cool. Thank you. Okay. So we want to keep this to 30 minutes. So we’ve got about seven minutes left. If anybody has any questions, please enter them into the text box. I do want to mention a couple of things beyond the technical side, more on the legal side that you, that you can be doing as well. Eric, you mentioned as well. Your website should have an accessibility message. Very often that can appear where your preps policy and BMCA policy and all the other policies that you have a little link on every accessible tip from every page of your website that says accessibility. And all that is, is a statement that says, if you are having trouble navigating our website, due to an accessibility issue, please here is what you can do and have a contact number, have email number ensure by the way, also that this message is accessible is readable.
It’s high contrast, right? So that at least now there’s no people will. You, that’s not a guarantee that you won’t get one of these demand letters, but it is a a showing that you are taking steps in that you do care. You can, if you’re looking for template language, look at what LeadingRE has on our website there it’s very simple message. You can also NAR for any members of NAR, they have offered as well, sort of friendly cribbing of their accessibility notice, which is actually more robust than ours. It’s it’s got quite a bit of good information there. So take a email@example.com or I guess it’s now ending our dot realtors website for some template language. I also want to mention, if you have received one of these demand letters, either under the ADA or under fair housing, the most important first thing to do is do not ignore it.
People are attempted, these do feel spammy. Don’t ignore those letters, make sure that you’ve talked to your attorney and make sure that your attorney is aware also that there are actually scam letters out there. There are fraudulent letters out there and that this is actually coming from a licensed people. What your next thing to do, do it, do an audit of your website and do a comparison on the issues that are on your website. Anything that does come up, compare those to what’s in the letter Eric, other information or other recommendations if somebody does receive one of these letters.
Yeah. I mean, you said take it seriously that’s first and foremost, but I would also just check your website every time these letters, whether it’s for accessibility or anything in the past you know, a lot of them, they just of get blasted out. And in this case, the letters that I’ve seen that have been out there are fairly detailed, but sometimes they make mistakes. And so, you know, you can definitely look at that and say, Hey, I looked at my website and it is successful or did do these things that that the letter said that it didn’t do. So I definitely look at that, but also, you know, I think you just call your web vendor, call your website vendor, and immediately, regardless of if you get out letter or not I think it’s a good opportunity for everybody to talk to their web vendor and ask the questions.
What are you doing to make me accessible? Number one, what protections are in our agreement? If I get one of these letters, that’s a, that’s a whole other thing that we really didn’t talk about is checking your agreement with your vendor to say, if we do get a letter like this, who’s responsible for payment, who’s responsible, you know, is there an indemnification clause to making your website compliant on this? So I would check like that, but also this, you know, do you remember the Showtime rotisserie the Ron Cose, Showtime, Richard Sri, that was a late night one of those infomercial things with the group. Do you remember this, Jessica? Okay. Ron Popeil, the infamous infomercial guy that made the pocket fishermen and the hair and a can and all this other stuff kind of his last hurrah was the Showtime rotisserie cooker and the whole thing on there.
And you’ll see where I’m going with this in a second. I promise. But the whole thing was that you could put your, your Turkey or your chicken in this rotisserie cooker. And, you know, it was kind of like a slow for, for you put it in there and then his line was you set it and forget it. Right. And the thing with real estate and all technology and real estate, but particularly with this is, it is not, absolutely not a set it and forget it model, you cannot say, Oh, is my website accessible? Yep. Okay. And I’m done, these are the accessibility checklists and the rules for this stuff changes frequently. So you need to be doing what I always recommend is a quarterly audit of your website. Hey, is everything working by the way, not even talking about accessibility, just checking your website to make sure pages haven’t broken or content still makes sense.
You know, there may be a lot of content on broker’s websites right now that doesn’t make a lot of sense after COVID-19 that you should be checking on really quarterly, if not more often, but this gives you one more item to put in that quarterly checklist to say, Hey, can I still do everything on my website too? That makes it accessible. So I would definitely put that in your quarterly meetings that you have with your website vendor, and just check up and say, Hey, have you done anything recently to make sure we stay compliant?
Fantastic. Fantastic. I’m seeing a few comments come in saying, yeah, we got a letter. We got a letter. Yeah. Get in touch with, you know, make sure that this is not put in a drawer. And then do respond to that letter. I mean, with your advice of your own counseling, I’m not licensed in all 50 States, but make sure that you are responding, saying we take the, we received your letter and we are taking this issue seriously. The threat with this particular new Florida manifestation is you’re not compliant. This is a fair housing violation and they attach the complaint as, as an additional, just one, two punch. So you know, whether or not there’s how empty these threats are. We, we have yet to see I, this, the scheme from the attorney’s standpoint, and again, like this is not diminishing the issue itself. We should be accessible from a human standpoint, from a business standpoint, but these letters as an attorney, I get to say, cause I’m an attorney, they feel a little dirty. Right. so, but, but they cannot be ignored. Do you make sure it’s legit? But don’t ignore it. So we are pretty much at the half hour Mark. Thank you again so much for your time today, Eric. And if there are any questions for you do you want to pitch out an email address that people could use?
Yeah, for sure. You can con you know, our website is TRIBUS.com, but there it is. And they can reach us out there. There’s a lot of great ways to contact our team that’s available on that website. They can also just email firstname.lastname@example.org and somebody great on our team will be happy to talk to you about an audit or talk to you about ways that we can maybe upgrade your website. And when doing that make it accessible. But if anybody has any questions, this has been seven years I’ve been involved in this. And so if you have a question, I, as Jessica said, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t play one on TV. But I have seen a lot of this and have paid attention quite extensively to it for seven years. And I’d be happy to share my experience with anybody that’s out there.
Thank you, Eric. And I am a lawyer again, not licensed everywhere, but if you do have, if you want to talk through any of the legal issues or any advice that I can provide on a general basis to anyone who has received a letter you know, where to find me, it’s Jedgerton@leadingre.com. I am at your disposal always. So thanks again, everyone, please be well, be safe. And we will hopefully see you all again soon. Take care. Bye everybody.