American Disabilities Act and the Internet

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was passed well before the internet we know today. However, with the rise of new online and web technologies, ADA has been adopted to the online world.

There is no specific language or guidelines within ADA to follow and implement with your website. However, as you’ll soon learn the language of ADA was wide enough in scope to help govern internet accessibility.  

Over 15% of the global population lives with a disability of some kind. Your website needs to cater to this portion of the population who has a disability.

Even though the ADA was written and signed into law 30 years ago, it’s still widely applicable and extends to the online space.

What is the ADA?

As mentioned above, ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed 30 years ago. The legislation had a dramatic effect on the daily lives of those with disabilities. The protections against discrimination offered by ADA are similar to the civil rights protections offered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, and religion illegal.

It mandated measures like handicap accessible restrooms, handicapped parking spaces, equal rights for restaurant service, equal pay, and much more. However, when the ADA was written and passed it didn’t forecast the sweeping role that technology was going to play in our lives.  

Even though the language of ADA is broad enough that it does apply to the web, most websites still have accessibility issues that stop people with disabilities from properly using a website. Plus, with the online world and its role in our lives growing every single day, this issue is only getting worse. 

One of the more recent additions to ADA legislation was The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which was signed into law in 2008 by President George H.W. Bush. The goal of this was to expand the protections offered by the original ADA and roll back restrictions in the initial legislation.

ADA web accessibility sections

The two main sections of ADA that apply to web accessibility are:

  1. Title II. This section prohibits disability-based discrimination within local and state governments. 
  2. Title III. This section prohibits discrimination based on disability based on public accommodations, like hotels, offices, public transportation, restaurants, hotels, and other public services and locations.

ADA Title II specifies that both state and local government websites must be 100% accessible. However, it’s still not entirely clear whether public sector websites fall under this rule, since there’s no official published information.

There is a little more clarity with ADA Title III, which applies to private internet sites and services, which meet the definition of reasonable accommodation. 

It does not fully specify whether fully web-based businesses fall under ADA, but in a DOJ brief in the Fifth Circuit in Hooks v. Oxbridge, it explained that businesses providing services over the internet are subject to ADA regulation. 

While in another brief, Eleventh Circuit in Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, the argument was there must be a nexus between the discriminatory activity and brick and mortar commercial facilities for it to be covered under Title III.

What ADA means for web access

First, there are no published technical requirements to follow to become ADA compliant for the internet. However, this doesn’t mean that legal action isn’t possible (as you’ll see below).

The DOJ, Supreme Court, and different circuit courts have had different rulings on when and how ADA is applied online. Some courts have ruled that the website must have overlap with a physical storefront for ADA to be applied, while other courts have ruled that no connection is necessary. 

One of the big connections that ADA has to the online space is the effective communication rules. These specify that businesses and services must provide sufficient aids and services so those who have a disability have equal access to goods, services, and effective communication.

For example, if a store provides a digital coupon code, then this coupon must also be able to be accessed and used by people with disabilities. Or, if your website has a job application form you’ll need to ensure this form can be read and filled out by all job applicants, including those with disabilities (this is related to the employment Title I of ADA). 

Although the ADA doesn’t specifically address web accessibility, the language is still broad enough that internet-based businesses and websites do fall under the legislation. So, if both Title II or Title III applies to your business, then they also apply to your website. 

Since there is no mention of websites in the ADA, or guidelines that website owners can follow, you should instead follow the guidelines put forth in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). This is the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) who enforces website accessibility issues.

The World Wide Web Consortium and WCAG 2.0

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is a group that regulates compatibility standards across the web. Due to the changing pace of technology and the growing accessibility divide, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were created. 

Originally published in 1999, it is continually updated to reflect the latest web standards, with the latest version being WCAG 2.0

There are 12 main guidelines that fall under four main principles covered in WCAG 2.0:

  1. Perceivable. Website information and user interface components must be presentable in a way that users can perceive. For example, you offer text-alternatives available for content that isn’t text-based.
  2. Operable. Navigation and user interface components must be operable. For example, your site needs to be able to be navigable via the keyboard. 
  3. Understandable. The information on your site and how your user interface works must be understandable. For example, abbreviations and uncommon words are spelled out or have a dictionary component. 
  4. Robust. The content on your site is robust enough to be interpreted by a wide range of assistive technologies.

The WCAG recommendations are recommended for all websites online. Even though these guidelines have been around for a while there are still barriers that disabled users must overcome to access the web. 

Understanding website accessibility

Today there are over 56 million people with disabilities in the U.S. alone, a large portion of that are internet users who use the web to access vital information. 

The overarching goal of attaining website accessibility is to ensure you’re catering to disability rights and making the web accessible to everyone.

Here are common disabilities you’ll need to ensure you’re catering to:

  • People who have color vision impairment need to be able to adjust the color resolution of your site
  • People who use screen readers to navigate your site need to be able to navigate between all the pages on your site without getting stuck
  • People who have limited motor control should be able to use voice commands or a keyboard to fully navigate your site
  • People who have a difficult time reading certain fonts should be able to adjust the font size or color
  • People who are hard of hearing and can’t access the video or audio content on your site and need to read transcriptions or use telecommunications devices instead
  • People who have a brain injury or mental impairment and need an on-demand dictionary to understand your content.

As a good rule of thumb, if your website is difficult to navigate, has content that’s hard to read due to font or design choices, or has animated elements you can’t turn off, then your website has poor accessibility.

Ethical accessibility issues

A lot of website owners will make their websites compliant with accessibility standards, so they don’t have to pay fines. However, accessibility isn’t just a financial issue, it’s an ethical issue.

For example, could you imagine navigating a website that’s filled with error messages, broken links, and pages with text you can’t even read? This is the reality for a lot of people with disabilities who are browsing the web.

If a website isn’t accessible, then those who have a disability are denied the right to obtain information or communicate. Even though it may not seem like it, this is a form of disability discrimination, since you’re preventing access to information. 

Accessibility shouldn’t just be an afterthought. Having an accessible website or application can create a better user experience for all of your users. 

By focusing on accessibility from the start, you’ll be able to create a positive experience that goes well beyond things like reaching a bigger online market and avoiding fines. Instead, you support the rights of people who otherwise won’t be able to access your website.

Legal and financial accessibility issues

Beyond the ethical issues surrounding website accessibility, it can lead to legal and financial issues as well. For example, in 2017 there were over 800 lawsuits filed against organizations that were in violation of ADA, and this only continues to increase.

This spans across a wide range of industries as well, including, restaurants, eCommerce stores, banks, and more. Large organizations like Nike, Burger King, and online-only companies like Netflix have also been hit with lawsuits.

The United States Department of Justice has also viewed the internet as a public place in certain instances (which falls under ADA Title III). So, by reaching and maintaining compliance you can help your website avoid legal issues and fines.

How to make your website more accessible

There’s a lot that goes into website accessibility, but there are certain areas that matter more than others.

Here are a few core areas of your site to focus on to improve the overall accessibility:

  • Keyboard accessible navigation menus. Your site should be fully accessible and easy to navigate just by using a keyboard. This includes your navigation, any interactive elements, and every page on your site.
  • Screen-reader links. Your site should have contextual links that make sense when read out loud by a screen reader, so use descriptive links, instead of the standard “read more” text.
  • Image alt text. Your images should include alt text that’s descriptive and not purely decorative, it needs to give context to your images. 
  • Sufficient color contrast. Your color contrast across your site should support the visually impaired who have difficulty reading text on low contrast backgrounds. 
  • Form labeling. Your contact forms need to have clear labels that describe the form field, so screen readers can interpret what information needs to be entered. 
  • Clear typography. Choose a clear font that’s easy to read on all screen sizes, it should also support re-sizing for those who need to read your text in a larger font. 
  • Video and audio transcription. Any additional media, like podcasts, videos, and interviews, should have a transcription or closed captioning for the visually and auditory impaired.

Another key factor to keep in mind is customer support and technical assistance. Your team should be able to assist users and visitors with disabilities with issues regarding your website, including offering text-based support options for those with speech disabilities. 

How ADA is enforced

ADA compliance is handled in different ways, depending on the size of the organization. State and local government services that have over 50 employees are required to have an employee whose role is ADA compliance.

If you’re an individual who wants to file a complaint yon the basis of disability you’ll have a variety of options for seeking resolution:

  • File an informal complaint
  • File a formal complaint in alignment with the organization
  • File private legal action
  • File a formal complaint with a federal government agency who is responsible for compliance like the DOJ, DOE, or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Most of the ADA enforcement that’s done by the DOJ is dealing with physical discriminatory behavior. However, they do handle issues related to online accessibility as well. Especially, as these issues become more common. 

Testing accessibility compliance

The best way to keep your website compliant is to ensure that you’re in alignment with the WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards. There are a variety of manual and automated testing approaches you can apply to achieve full compliance.

There are different guidelines you must adhere to to achieve and maintain compliance. Smaller sites may be able to achieve compliance manually. But for larger sites, you may need to use automated tools. For example, if you have thousands of images that you need to check for alt text, you’ll want to use an automated tool to analyze these images. 

Here are some tools you can utilize to test current compliance levels:

  • Test how well your site reads with a screen reader with NVDA
  • Check your color contrast with Contrast Ratio
  • Check your entire site’s accessibility in the Chrome browser with WAVE
  • Test different color combinations that provide proper contrast and balance with ColorSafe

Some tools can even give you a full compliance report. For example, The Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BOIA) has an automated report that will show you how well your site adheres to the current WCAG compliance standards. You can then use this report to improve your site’s overall accessibility rating. 

Does the ADA apply to your website or business?

The ADA will apply to most businesses, however here’s a quick checklist. The ADA definitely applies to you if:

  • You are an online retailer (eCommerce business)
  • You employ other people (in person or remote)
  • You’re an agency that receives federal funding like the Department of Health, Department of Transportation, etc.
  • You create or manage websites
  • You develop software, web, or mobile applications
Alex Grant
 

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