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Q&A: Why it’s important to make real estate websites accessible to all

Roughly 8% of the population needs accessibility features on their browser

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating opportunities for the disabled community.

According to AP News, disabled workers still face higher unemployment than other adults, even 30 years after the act was passed.

By June 2020, the unemployment rate for disabled people rose to 16.5%, compared to 11% for workers without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an interview with HousingWire, Eric Stegemann, CEO of Tribus, a custom brokerage platform vendor, answered a few questions on the importance and necessity of making real estate accessible for all.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

HousingWire: Why do you think accessibility matters in real estate?

Eric Stegemann: It’s something I’ve actually been really passionate about for [almost] 10 years. I used to serve as the chair of the business issues committee for the National Association of Realtors, and this is something that was brought to my attention back in 2011-2012. We started looking heavily into it and saying “okay, well, what’s going on here?” This was kind of the early days of the discussion of ADA, and its importance in real estate, and for websites in general. I don’t think until that time anybody had really considered ADA, as far as websites.

I think the biggest thing to know is that roughly 8% of the population needs some sort of accessibility setting on their browser or when they’re navigating websites. I actually did double and triple check some of those numbers because I thought that would be too high, but sure enough, it is [right]. The reason why accessibility isn’t just about what you consider blind people or handicapped is that it can also be your grandma or grandpa. They can’t easily read small text on a website. What it comes down to is that you need to make sure your website is working for all of these different folks because you’re essentially turning off close to 10% of your potential business if you don’t.

HW: How can digital content be made more accessible?

ES: Tech people, younger folks, etc., they’re not the ones that have to experience this, and they don’t think about the ramifications to this group of people. Whether it’s somebody who is completely blind or whether it’s your grandma or grandpa, they don’t think about those things. From that perspective, there are lots of different sites that are online that kind of show you what it’s like to go through it as somebody who’s either on the far end and would be completely blind and trying to use a website or if it’s needing larger text.

I think it’s a matter of everybody educating themselves. If I’m a broker, I should go educate myself on what it means to be accessible, and the range of things that people need to make their sites accessible to the various different groups are out there. As I mentioned, when it comes to the sizing of text, the most simple item, the feature that’s there has been in browsers for a very long time, but it is in use all the time by a good chunk of the population to make reading websites easier.

A lot of websites, particularly in the real estate industry, when you try to increase the text size, it blows the text off the page and makes it not usable. We can definitely get into more advanced items that are out there like screen readers and high contrast, but from a usability standpoint, I always find that’s the one that people who don’t have accessibility needs are able to connect with the most because most people have had that happen at some point by accident.

HW: How can a website, like a real estate website, be made more accessible for those who need it at a time like this, where open houses are now virtual, there are 3D home tours and there’s remote online notarization? What are the steps that need to be taken to achieve accessibility on that side of the industry?

ES: The standards for this change all the time, so it’s a matter of constantly thinking about it. I always tell brokers, if you’re not a client, to make sure your vendor communicates with your website vendor on what they are doing to make sure that their site stays accessible and stays up to date with current standards just like you would need to update your website for current standards for browsers.

For example, many people might be familiar with the fact that you had to make your website compatible with Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari. They all use different ways of making your website load. Accessibility should be thought of in the same way, as it’s a constantly moving target. You need to review it on a regular basis and do an audit of your website on a regular basis. Really, the first step is either you know your in house tech people or your vendor [and] you should be asking them to do an audit of the website.

Number two, a big one, what I see missed all the time is that most brokers could not begin to tell you what an alt tag on a website is. Again, communicating with your vendor is vital, and having a vendor that is looking out for you in these cases and being ahead of these things is vital. So from that perspective, ask your vendor, “Are you automatically creating alt tags or do you have a way that I can add alt tags to the page?”

HW: What needs to happen in the future for real estate and real estate technology to be made more accessible?

ES: There needs to be a focus on accessibility by the brokerage company, particularly during the brokerage tech purchasing process.

As soon as brokers demand this from their vendors, the issue will be quickly solved. In the meantime though, brokers are losing more than 5% of potential clients by ignoring this set of the population.

HW: What does making a website accessible for disabled people mean for fair housing and making housing more attainable?

ES: As all agents learn in real estate licensing classes, disabilities are a protected class by fair housing laws. In today’s world, most home searches begins online – not just for non-disabled people, but disabled people as well. It’s the duty of agents and brokers to make sure that housing remains the American dream. Having a website that helps facilitate this for disabled people is a fundamental part of the home-buying process.

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