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 large number of people who have disabilities, coupled with the challenges that they face, is one of the reasons that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.² As its name suggests, the ADA is designed to protect individuals with disabilities in the United States. The ADA essentially makes it illegal for any government entity or business to provide goods and services to the general public without ensuring that the entities are accessible by people with disabilities. In today’s digitally driven world, many businesses fail to follow web accessibility best practices. In fact, this is why the Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) was created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). To ensure that they are implementing digital accessibility best practices, organizations are encouraged to use the WCAG 2.1 technical requirements.³
Now you know that some types of content and format on webpages can pose barriers for people with disabilities. The next steps are to develop an action plan to fix web content that is currently inaccessible and implement procedures to ensure that all new and modified web content is accessible. The website accessibility checklist included in this section helps you assess what needs to be done.
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.
Under Title II, publicly available videos, whether for entertainment or informational use, must be made accessible to individuals with disabilities. That means including captions on videos both in person and online so that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can access public services. Websites for public entities should also be fully accessible to users who are deaf, blind or have limited dexterity.
The ADA guidelines are often updated so that businesses can better understand how various disabilities can affect the way that people will interact with websites and digital content. The guidelines also explain why certain barriers can prevent disabled individuals from using or even accessing a website. With these goals in mind, it is important to note that organizations need to review the guidelines on a yearly basis. New technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence10, are being used to help people with disabilities get the most out of the digital world. If organizations fail to read the latest ADA guidelines, then they will soon discover that their approach to web accessibility is outdated, and they might be in violation of digital accessibility laws.
Seyfarth’s ADA Title III team consists of attorneys with extensive experience in ADA Title III litigation located in many offices across the United States, including California where plaintiffs are most active. With additional litigators admitted to practice in virtually every jurisdiction in the country, we have the resources to defend our clients against lawsuits and investigations on a nationwide basis and provide consistent and efficient service in national engagements. We have successfully defended against or resolved hundreds of lawsuits brought under Title III of the ADA and applicable state laws.
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.
“Streaming of video programming over the Internet—by defendant Netflix and other similar providers—has revolutionized the entertainment industry; it is fast becoming the dominant means of delivering movies, television shows, and other entertainment offerings to the American public. Persons who are deaf or hard of hearing should not be prevented from fully participating in this aspect of American life. Netflix’s denial of equal access to, and full enjoyment of, its “Watch Instantly” service violates the ADA.”-Assistant Attorney General, Thomas E. Perez.
Accessibility is important and should be a part of your company or organization’s long-term digital presence strategy. As the web grows ever more refined and personalized, it will no longer be just other entities like the government, Google and the DOJ that expect your site to function with all possible populations in mind. Individual users of all backgrounds, abilities and experience will expect and demand that your site be clear, easy to use and accessible to all.