As organizations around the world scramble to bring their sites into compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), focus on other, preexisting accessibility regulations has also intensified. The United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most visible and complicated pieces of accessibility legislation. Let’s look at some of the ins and outs of what an ADA compliant website means today. Or, if you're interested in seeing the nitty-gritty details of your site's accessibility, request a free website audit report using the form on this page.
The landscape of disabled access litigation related to online services has significantly changed and expanded over the past decade. Initially, the internet was an area of little concern as courts uniformly held that the ADA applied to "brick and mortar" facilities, not to cyberspace. This has changed and online accessibility is presently, and will continue to be, an area of significant investigation and litigation.
Signed in 1990 at a time that most people hadn’t even used the Internet, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not explicitly regulate how websites need to follow nondiscrimination requirements. We now know that using the Internet is one of the most important ways for people with disabilities to fulfill their needs and desires. For many people with disabilities, especially impairments to sight and motion, visiting a store or other physical location can be a challenging experience. Online shopping, for example, allows people with disabilities to make the purchases they need easily and securely within the comfort of their own homes.
What’s the scope of the work? Will the website be basic with just a few pages about your company, its services, and contact information? Or will it also have an e-commerce section for online shopping, a blog, or content for visitors to download? Before you hire a web designer, make sure you have a thorough, specific list of the components you must have the designer include in the web design.
The General Services Administration hosts an online course for web developers interested in accessible web design. This program was developed in conjunction with the Access Board, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education and provides an interactive demonstration of how to build accessible web pages. This course is available at www.section508.gov, which also provides information about the Federal government’s initiative to make its electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
Webpage designers often have aesthetic preferences and may want everyone to see their webpages in exactly the same color, size and layout. But because of their disability, many people with low vision do not see webpages the same as other people. Some see only small portions of a computer display at one time. Others cannot see text or images that are too small. Still others can only see website content if it appears in specific colors. For these reasons, many people with low vision use specific color and font settings when they access the Internet – settings that are often very different from those most people use. For example, many people with low vision need to use high contrast settings, such as bold white or yellow letters on a black background. Others need just the opposite – bold black text on a white or yellow background. And, many must use softer, more subtle color combinations.
(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites. In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website. The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues. There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) established the main international standards and accessibility for the World Wide Web. The WCAG is created by the W3C to provide a standard for web content accessibility that can be shared around the world. The WCAG is meant to accompany organizations as a sort of blueprint on how to make their websites ADA compliant.
ADA website compliance is about making sure that everyone has equal access to all the elements on your website and apps. That may mean you need to provide alternatives for some of the functions and content on your site in order to meet ADA website compliance standards. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the accommodations that need to be incorporated into your website to meet the ADA guidelines:
Under Title III, no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation. Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.
That’s good news if you are one of the many Americans who have a visual, hearing, or mobility disability that makes it difficult to access some information on the web. If you are a business owner who hasn’t made provisions to ensure that your website and other online assets are ADA compliant, you could be looking at a host of legal and financial penalties.
In response to the members’ concern about the proliferation of website litigation lawsuits, DOJ said: “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts.” DOJ is essentially putting the ball back in the Congressional court, where little is likely to happen.
However, in states that have enacted laws that allow private individuals to win monetary awards from non-compliant businesses (as of 2008, these include California, Florida, Hawaii, and Illinois), "professional plaintiffs" are typically found. At least one of these plaintiffs in California has been barred by courts from filing lawsuits unless he receives prior court permission. Through the end of fiscal year 1998, 86% of the 106,988 ADA charges filed with and resolved by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, were either dropped or investigated and dismissed by EEOC but not without imposing opportunity costs and legal fees on employers.
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Additionally, in February 2018, Congress passed the ADA Education and Reform Act, a bill designed to make it harder for disabled Americans to sue businesses for discrimination. Republican lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill argue that the law will help curb “frivolous” lawsuits, while opponents have argued that this law will gut the ADA, essentially giving businesses little reason to follow the ADA guidelines at all.
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The Department of Justice (DOJ) has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. There’s a growing body of case law where the DOJ required companies to provide an ADA compliant website and levied hefty penalties when sites failed to measure up.
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.