The statement that “noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA” is new and significant. It is a recognition that a website may be accessible and usable by the blind without being fully compliant with the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1. The statement confirms what some courts have said so far: That the operative legal question in a website accessibility lawsuit is not whether the website conforms with WCAG, but whether persons with disabilities are able to access to a public accommodation’s goods, services, and benefits through the website, or some alternative fashion.
Consequently, the Department intends to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to amend its Title II regulations to expressly address the obligations of public entities to make the websites they use to provide programs, activities, or services or information to the public accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities under the legal framework established by the ADA.
Many government services and activities are also provided on websites because the public is able to participate in them at any time of day and without the assistance of government personnel. Many government websites offer a low cost, quick, and convenient way of filing tax returns, paying bills, renewing licenses, signing up for programs, applying for permits or funding, submitting job applications, and performing a wide variety of other activities.
In a society in which business is increasingly conducted online, excluding businesses that sell services through the Internet from the ADA would ‘run afoul of the purposes of the ADA’” in that it would prevent “‘individuals with disabilities [from] fully enjoy[ing] the goods, services, privileges, and advantages, available indiscriminately to other members of the general public.
Google and the government are already making asks around their expectations of accessibility as a cornerstone of website development. Google already rewards sites that check many accessibility boxes with higher rankings and the government has signaled that web accessibility standards will be required for government contractors. By building a more accessible website now, you may significantly impact your SEO and ranking potential, not to mention open the doors to possible work as a government contractor.
Blind people, those with low vision, and people with other disabilities that affect their ability to read a computer display often use different technologies so they can access the information displayed on a webpage. Two commonly used technologies are screen readers and refreshable Braille displays. As discussed above, a screen reader is a computer program that speaks the text that appears on the computer display, beginning in the top-left corner. A refreshable Braille display is an electronic device that translates text into Braille characters that can be read by touch. These assistive technologies read text. They cannot translate images into speech or Braille, even if words appear in the images. For example, these technologies cannot interpret a photograph of a stop sign, even if the word “stop” appears in the image.
Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for webpage and content development are properly trained. Distribute the Department of Justice technical assistance document “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities” to these in-house staff and contractors on an annual basis as a reminder. This technical assistance document is available on the ADA Home Page at www.ada.gov.
Seyfarth’s ADA Title III team consists of attorneys with extensive experience in ADA Title III litigation located in many offices across the United States, including California where plaintiffs are most active. With additional litigators admitted to practice in virtually every jurisdiction in the country, we have the resources to defend our clients against lawsuits and investigations on a nationwide basis and provide consistent and efficient service in national engagements. We have successfully defended against or resolved hundreds of lawsuits brought under Title III of the ADA and applicable state laws.
DOJ’s September 25 response did not do what the members asked, but it did provide some helpful guidance and invited Congress to take legislative action to address the exploding website accessibility litigation landscape. DOJ first said it was “evaluating whether promulgating specific web accessibility standards through regulations is necessary and appropriate to ensure compliance with the ADA.” (This is helpful – to at least know this issue has not fallen totally off DOJ’s radar.) It continued:
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.