On the legal side, ambiguity in the law and the speed at which technology and dependence on the Internet has developed created an opportunity for litigation all over our nation. As these cases have moved through our system, the courts have been nearly split -- with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Circuits ruling that the ADA does apply to websites, while the 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have ruled that it does not. These latter rulings have all been based on the interpretation that the ADA is focused on physical location and requires a nexus test. Other circuit courts in the United States have yet to rule on the topic.
The ADA guidelines provide the foundation that organizations need to achieve digital accessibility best approaches, however they are not exhaustive. They do not provide direction for all of the accessibility challenges that people with disabilities face. They also fail to provide detailed technical instructions. With these limitations in mind, there is a ray of hope.
Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004), was a case in the Supreme Court of the United States involving Congress's enforcement powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. George Lane was unable to walk after a 1997 car accident in which he was accused of driving on the wrong side of the road. A woman was killed in the crash, and Lane faced misdemeanor charges of reckless driving. The suit was brought about because he was denied access to appear in criminal court because the courthouse had no elevator, even though the court was willing to carry him up the stairs and then willing to move the hearing to the first floor. He refused, citing he wanted to be treated as any other citizen, and was subsequently charged with failure to appear, after appearing at a previous hearing where he dragged himself up the stairs. The court ruled that Congress did have enough evidence that the disabled were being denied those fundamental rights that are protected by the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and had the enforcement powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. It further ruled that "reasonable accommodations" mandated by the ADA were not unduly burdensome and disproportionate to the harm.
Because they only read text, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret photographs, charts, color-coded information, or other graphic elements on a webpage. For this reason, a photograph of a mayor on a city’s website is inaccessible to people who use these assistive technologies, and a blind person visiting the website would be unable to tell if the image is a photo, a logo, a map, a chart, artwork, a link to another page, or even a blank page.
Upon first recognizing this possible application of Title III of the ADA in 2003, the DOJ laid out a Voluntary Action Plan for government agencies and private entities, and later followed that up with a short list of recommendations in 2007. In 2010, the DOJ seemed to be picking up steam on this topic when they released a Notice of Advance Rulemaking -- stating that they were “considering revising the regulations implementing Title III of the ADA in order to establish requirements for making the goods, services...offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web, accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities, using the simple steps described in this document. An agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, job announcements and application forms, if posted on an accessible website, would be available to people with disabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This particular lawsuit amounted to nothing more than a shakedown for cash, as the current laws would make it difficult to win the suit in court (more about this later) but it prompted me to dive deeper into the issue of ADA compliance. Through my research, I discovered there are some new laws on the horizon that could make ADA compliance mandatory, which means web designers and digital marketers need to know how to prepare.