For close to seven years, since July of 2010, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has talked about issuing regulations specifically about web accessibility. At that time the US Department of Justice (DOJ) began developing accessibility guidelines for public websites under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On December 26, 2017, the Department announced that those regulations were officially withdrawn.
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.
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.
Because the ADA does not specifically mention websites, it also does not outline standards for how organizations can make their websites accessible. However, the DOJ has frequently cited recommendations such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as acceptable metrics for accessibility. WCAG 2.0 includes many different criteria at three different “success levels” of accessibility, ranging from high-contrast color schemes to closed captions for video content.
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.
Every year numerous lawsuits are taken against businesses that fail to follow the ADA’s proposed requirements for web accessibility. This failure occurs because organizations, including state and local government entities, fail to read the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit.8 They also do not follow the most up to date version of the WCAG.9 These two failures are not only detrimental to people with disabilities who want to effectively browse the web, but they are also inexcusable in today’s digitally driven world.
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The Department of Justice (DOJ) has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. There’s a growing body of case law where the DOJ required companies to provide an ADA compliant website and levied hefty penalties when sites failed to measure up.
Talk to your web designer about other techniques that will make your site more user-friendly for people with disabilities. Worried that’s not in your budget? Consider the fact that DOJ fines start at $75,000. And it's still yet to be determined if a non-compliant website is liable for one fine or will be charge per page for each violation. As the recent lawsuits illustrate, though, settlements quickly add up into the millions.
Sarah is a Web Marketing Specialist at WebFX. Certified in Google Analytics and Google Ads, Sarah also specializes in content marketing, as well as marketing and advertising on ecommerce platforms like Amazon. In 2006, she was awarded Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” award. When she isn’t polishing her award, she’s spending time with her flock of ducks. Follow her on Twitter @the_berry_bot.
If you do get sued, if you immediately remediate your website, you may be able to get the lawsuit dismissed on mootness (there’s no longer anything in dispute, i.e. plaintiffs are arguing your website is inaccessible but you’ve already made it accessible). This definitely does not mean you should wait to fix your website but it does mean you may have an out.
You may have installed a ramp, increased the width of your door frames, or made other accommodations to ensure that your physical premises are accessible to all. The requirement for equal access used to only apply to physical locations and storefronts, but now the government is actively ensuring that the requirements for ADA accessibility include online properties such as websites and mobile apps.
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Because they only read text, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret photographs, charts, color-coded information, or other graphic elements on a webpage. For this reason, a photograph of a mayor on a city’s website is inaccessible to people who use these assistive technologies, and a blind person visiting the website would be unable to tell if the image is a photo, a logo, a map, a chart, artwork, a link to another page, or even a blank page.
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.
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:
...the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of "public accommodation" by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation. Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.
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Most recently, however, pizza chain Domino's has been brought under suit for their website not being accessible for specialty ordering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, instead upholding the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who said the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises—which are places of public accommodation.”
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.
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.