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.
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.
The menu is fully keyboard accessible and contrast levels for text are kept well above the 4.5:1. This theme passes WCAG 2.0 AA standards out-of-box. On wordpress.org, Period is given the “accessibility-ready” tag. This is basically a reminder to users that while all design elements in Period pass accessibility standards, it’s up to the user to make sure their content is accessible too in order for their site to maintain its accessibility.
According to the DOJ, “Being unable to access websites puts individuals with disabilities at a great disadvantage in today’s society.” With these words in mind, the DOJ has rapidly adopted the role of web accessibility enforcer. A failure to make digital content, including websites, accessible to all individuals regardless of their emotional, physical, or mental disabilities, can result in hefty fines and class action lawsuits. In short, the DOJ is dedicated to making sure that individuals with disabilities have the same equal access to the benefits that are available online. Creating equal access is only possible if organizations a) understand the requirements of web accessibility, b) know that web accessibility is an obligation under the ADA, and c) make web accessibility a priority. The value that awaits when organizations adhere to digital accessibility laws can be measured in more than dollars and cents.
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.
UPDATE: Since writing this post in August 2017, several important changes have taken place in the laws regarding ADA compliance for websites. On December 26, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that they have withdrawn the Obama-era Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned in this article which intended to require ADA website compliance. The DOJ’s withdrawal announcement stated, “The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.”
As I mentioned above, under each WCAG 2.1 principle is a list of guidelines, and under each guideline are compliance standards, with techniques and failure examples at each level. Some guidelines include only Level A items; others include items for multiple levels of conformance, building from A to AAA. At each stage, you can easily see what more you would need to do to reach Level AA or AAA. In this way, many websites include elements at multiple levels of accessibility.
Federal law isn't the only consideration for businesses. Additionally, each state interprets the law differently. Consider the case against Netflix in 2012. Lawsuits were brought in federal court in Massachusetts and California. Netflix was accused of violating the ADA by not offering "closed captioning" options for its Internet streamed movies. Illustrating the complexity of this issue, the courts reached completely opposite decisions. Massachusetts held that Netflix must comply with the ADA, while the California court found that Netflix did not fall under the ADA's definition of "public accommodation."
All of that was well and good in 1990, when the then-nascent Internet was not the ubiquitous presence in the lives of Americans that it is today. For example, retail shopping in-person at a mall in 1990 was booming, unlike today where online shopping has completely changed the game for retailers. As time and technologies evolved however, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the entity charged with enforcing the ADA, hinted but never definitively stated that Title III may indeed be applicable to websites.