Enacted in 1990, this civil rights statute was created for the purpose of limiting discriminatory practices towards individuals with disabilities. This act and its amendments guarantee equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. Both public and private entities are affected by the ADA.
The Trump administration’s DOJ had previously promised to begin using WCAG 2.0 as its formal standard for web accessibility. However, the DOJ recently included this action as part of the department’s “inactive list,” which means that it’s not likely to be adopted in the near future. As a result, a clear standard to judge an organizations’ web accessibility will continue to be interpreted, and the number of ADA website lawsuits is not expected to slow down any time soon.
Legal precedent is changing, and ADA compliance related lawsuits are becoming more successful, and the courts are seeing more of them as a result. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act pertains to private sector businesses. Lately, those protections are more frequently expanding into digital territory as web and mobile applications become more necessary in our day-to-day lives.
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.
Web designers often design in such a way that does not allow the user to adjust font size or color. While they may be protecting their brand, they are also inhibiting some users. Many visually impaired need to use high contrast color settings or very large fonts to read a website. Don't design your website in a way that makes it impossible for them to do this.
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.
Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.
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.
In some circumstances, longer and more detailed text will be necessary to convey the same meaningful information that other visitors to the website can see. For example, a map showing the locations of neighborhood branches of a city library needs a tag with much more information in text format. In that instance, where the map conveys the locations of several facilities, add a “longdesc” tag that includes a text equivalent description of each location shown on the map – e.g., “City Center Library, 433 N. Main Street, located on North Main Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue.”
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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.
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.