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.
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.
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.
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.”
Without a definitive ruling, there is room for a difference of opinion. That’s exactly what happened in 2015 in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Netflix is not subject to Title III of the ADA because it has no physical place of business. This opinion was unpublished, meaning it is not intended to be considered legal precedent, but it certainly makes it confusing for businesses that are not sure where they stand under the ADA.
If posted on an accessible website, tax forms need to be available to people with disabilities in an accessible format on the same terms that they are available to other members of the public – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without cost, inconvenience, or delay. A staffed telephone line that sent copies of tax forms to callers through the mail would not provide equal access to people with disabilities because of the delay involved in mailing the forms.
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.”
The Department is evaluating whether promulgating regulations about the accessibility of Web information and services are necessary and appropriate. Such an evaluation will be informed by an additional review of data and further analysis. The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.
Many government services and activities are also provided on websites because the public is able to participate in them at any time of day and without the assistance of government personnel. Many government websites offer a low cost, quick, and convenient way of filing tax returns, paying bills, renewing licenses, signing up for programs, applying for permits or funding, submitting job applications, and performing a wide variety of other activities.