Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
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.
This past September marked the first time a judge ruled that the ADA applies even to businesses without a physical location. Scribd, an e-book subscription service is considered to provide "a place of public accommodation." Their services are not accessible to blind persons because they cannot be read with a screen reader. The judge reasoned, "Now that the Internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation."
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.
It makes sense that everyone should have equal access to websites and online properties. The Internet has become an integral part of our lives, where we go to shop, learn, do our banking, and socialize. The DOJ hasn’t determined what the final set of regulations for ADA compliant websites will be yet, but there are established guidelines and standards of accessibility that can be viewed on the ADA website. Once a website meets these accessibility standards it qualifies as ADA compliant.
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.”
Last spring, I was approached by my local chapter of the Legal Marketing Association about presenting alongside attorney Dana Hoffman of Young Moore on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its application to law firm website design. The presentation was fun and informative, and I was honored shortly thereafter the opportunity to expand the focus for an audience of litigators at the 2017 Defense Research Institute’s Retail and Hospitality Conference in Chicago. I’ll be presenting on this topic this Friday alongside Amy Richardson of Harris Wiltshire & Grannis. Amy has worked on both the litigation and government enforcement sides of this issue and we’re both looking forward to talking with attorneys representing clients across the business spectrum on this interesting topic.
I should mention one caveat to all of this. Businesses that are required to comply but don't have the ability to bring their websites into compliance can provide an accessible alternative to provide the same information, goods, and services that they provide online, like a staffed phone line. The trick, however, is that this option has to provide at least equal access, including in terms of hours of operation. And, as we know, the internet is around 24/7, so good luck with that.
(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.
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