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.”
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.
People with disabilities are all around us. They live in every country and often experience life in a very different manner than those individuals who don’t have emotional, mental, or physical disabilities. In fact, 15 percent of the global population is classified as disabled. Of this 15 percent, an estimated 190 million people experience significant disabilities.¹
However, full compliance with the ADA’s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of the programs, services, and activities provided by State and local governments in today’s technologically advanced society will only occur if it is clear to public entities that their websites must be accessible.
Case law has been the most helpful in illuminating the implications of the ADA for websites.There have been lawsuits involving companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Southwest Airlines, and Target as defendants and primarily featuring accessibility organizations as plaintiffs. These cases had mixed results, but each helped clarify the ADA's jurisdiction on the web.
However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore ADA or web accessibility. What we do know, is that all websites should be given a good-faith-effort of becoming easily accessible. This should be the case for any user who may wish to browse your website, regardless of their disability of type of impairment. They deserve it. Making your website accessible benefits an array of individuals and businesses.
The 2014 case involving Peapod, an online grocery retailer emphasizes that being ADA compliant goes beyond your website. The settlement required Peapod to make its mobile applications accessible by March 2015 and its website accessible by September 2015. Since mobile apps are fast becoming the preferred method of online shopping, e-commerce sites must focus on app accessibility too.
Disabilities covered under the ADA can be physical (e.g., muscular dystrophy, dwarfism, etc.), sensory (e.g., blindness, deafness, deaf-blindness), or cognitive (e.g., Down Syndrome). In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act broadened the scope of how disability is legally defined: psychological, emotional, and physiological conditions are now included.
Leading web developers have been pioneering accessibility and publishing standards since 1994. In 1999, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In essence, the people who determine how the internet is written came together to advise web developers on how to make websites accessible not only to people with disabilities, but to all web users, including those with highly limited devices.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed in 1990. Twenty years later, the US Department of Justice released an update called the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These standards cover the design of physical spaces and have been interpreted to include web locations as well, so it can be difficult for the would-be accessible website designer to use them.
Meanwhile, the tech community and our courts system were forced to deal with the issue on their own. First, the tech community coalesced around a set of standards via the World Wide Web Consortium, establishing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 2008 and later updating them in 2012 (WCAG 2.0), when they were also adopted as an ISO standard. Today, web designers and developers across the world use WCAG 2.0 to guide their design and development, typically aiming to meet all of the standards under Level AA.
As we reported in June, 103 members of the House of Representatives from both parties asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”
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.
These and other types of multimedia can present two distinct problems for people with different disabilities. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can generally see the information presented on webpages. But a deaf person or someone who is hard of hearing may not be able to hear the audio track of a video. On the other hand, persons who are blind or have low vision are frequently unable to see the video images but can hear the audio track.
Without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to gauge where the Trump administration will direct the DOJ on ADA regulations in relation to websites moving forward, if they do at all. The administration has already emphasized a desire to move away from regulation and those with a vested interest in the application of the ADA to websites have taken that as a signal that the already thrice delayed process will continue to be pushed down the list of priorities.
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.