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
“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.
A one of a kind plug-in, WP ADA Compliance Check Basic does just that – checking WordPress websites for ADA compliance. There are two ways to use it. First, you can schedule a whole-site scan to find out any ADA compliance issues. Secondly, you can set it to run every time new content is published. When set this way, the plug-in will identify and report on any ADA compliance issues found in the new content as well as recommend possible solutions. The full version even corrects some of the uncovered issues automatically.
Whether you target a small demographic or offer services to an array of customers, you can benefit from making your website more accessible to a broader range of individuals. Reach more visitors and keep them, by allowing screen readers to describe the images to the blind, ensuring your navigation can be used without a mouse for those with physical limitations, and more.
On the legal side, ambiguity in the law and the speed at which technology and dependence on the Internet has developed created an opportunity for litigation all over our nation. As these cases have moved through our system, the courts have been nearly split -- with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Circuits ruling that the ADA does apply to websites, while the 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have ruled that it does not. These latter rulings have all been based on the interpretation that the ADA is focused on physical location and requires a nexus test. Other circuit courts in the United States have yet to rule on the topic.
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.”
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.
HTML tags – specific instructions understood by a web browser or screen reader. One type of HTML tag, called an “alt” tag (short for “alternative text”), is used to provide brief text descriptions of images that screen readers can understand and speak. Another type of HTML tag, called a “longdesc” tag (short for “long description”), is used to provide long text descriptions that can be spoken by screen readers.
As I mentioned above, under each WCAG 2.1 principle is a list of guidelines, and under each guideline are compliance standards, with techniques and failure examples at each level. Some guidelines include only Level A items; others include items for multiple levels of conformance, building from A to AAA. At each stage, you can easily see what more you would need to do to reach Level AA or AAA. In this way, many websites include elements at multiple levels of accessibility.
In an August 2016 case involving the University of California Berkeley, the DOJ ruled that the public university was in violation of ADA Title II (similar to Title III but it instead applies to government organizations) because their YouTube channel’s videos didn’t include captions for hearing impaired visitors. The DOJ found this to violate the ADA as deaf users did not have equal access to the online content.
However, full compliance with the ADA’s promise to provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all aspects of the programs, services, and activities provided by State and local governments in today’s technologically advanced society will only occur if it is clear to public entities that their websites must be accessible.
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.
Basically, there are standards which apply to US federal agencies, and State or Local Government websites (not business/personal websites). While some disability discrimination laws do mention websites, they don’t specify the technical standards required to comply with the law. Regardless of ADA’s lack of stating websites must be fully accessible, the Department of Justice seems to rule on the side of “they should be”.
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.
That’s good news if you are one of the many Americans who have a visual, hearing, or mobility disability that makes it difficult to access some information on the web. If you are a business owner who hasn’t made provisions to ensure that your website and other online assets are ADA compliant, you could be looking at a host of legal and financial penalties.
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.
The need to make websites, mobile apps, and other online properties accessible to all is only going to increase as time moves on. Smart business owners will do well to get in front of this issue and make sure that their websites are ADA compliant now so that all their customers have the equal access to the resources they offer. Not just because they want to avoid a lawsuit or government action, but because it’s the right thing to do.
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.
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.
These statistics are especially important when you consider the potential spending power of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, if the website isn’t accessible, then it is excluding more than 60 million Americans14. Additionally, 71 percent of customers14 with disabilities will instantly leave the site if it does not meet their accessibility needs. Another 80 percent of customers14 with disabilities have stated that they will spend more on a website that has improved accessibility features. Fortunately, if you follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)7, then you can appeal to millions of individuals who want to enjoy the same online experiences as their friends, family, and neighbors. Giving them the chance is not only right, but it is also in accordance with ADA regulations.
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.
People with disabilities that affect their sight, hearing, or mobility may have difficulty accessing certain parts of websites and other online properties unless certain accommodations are made. Just as businesses may need to make adjustments to their physical location so that disabled customers have easy access to the premises, companies may need to adjust certain aspects of their websites so individuals with disabilities can take full advantage of all the features and services.
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.