I recently finished a training in ADA compliance for websites. It was illuminating and daunting, as I realizated that there’s a lot of work to be done. It also reiterated—in no uncertain terms—a gospel I’ve been preaching for several years now. Sites need to be accessible for everyone on every platform. Previously I was just focusing on responsive sites (sites that reformat for the device used, such as a phone or tablet.) Since responsive sites are de rigueur these days, I’d like to focus on your site’s accessibility…can it be accessed by people with disabilities? This includes screen readers and other technology. It’s not just a nice thing, it’s a civil law.
Now more than ever, search engines are evolving to crawl pages with more human intention. A key element of WCAG is accessibility to screen readers, and these readers crawl your website pages similarly to search engines. If your website meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it will likely appeal to users, search engines, and screen readers alike, ultimately improving your SEO endeavors. For this reason, meta tagging, alternative image text, and video transcripts should be seriously considered.
People with disabilities are all around us. They live in every country and often experience life in a very different manner than those individuals who don’t have emotional, mental, or physical disabilities. In fact, 15 percent of the global population is classified as disabled. Of this 15 percent, an estimated 190 million people experience significant disabilities.¹
The words in the tag should be more than a description. They should provide a text equivalent of the image. In other words, the tag should include the same meaningful information that other users obtain by looking at the image. In the example of the mayor’s picture, adding an “alt” tag with the words “Photograph of Mayor Jane Smith” provides a meaningful description.
This is the exact opposite of mistake #1. Let me start by revealing a dirty little secret when it comes to website design. Most people think, Oh, I’m going to hire a professional website firm because I want a “real website” As opposed to a Word Press website or something else. And what most people don't realize is that all websites are made from the same stuff.
Web accessibility addresses the needs of every website visitor to achieve an optimal level of usability and ADA compliance. Many people browsing the web have a permanent disability (visual, mobility or neurological impairment), or a temporary impairment such as a broken arm, broken or lost eyeglasses, and so on. Many baby boomers have aging-related issues that make using the web more challenging, and they’re not alone–about 20% of the U.S. population has an identified disability.
Since the ADA does not specifically address web accessibility, it means the Department of Justice (DOJ) will not, at this time, intervene. This means it cannot levy fines or penalties against non-compliant businesses. However, individuals and groups can file civil suits against businesses. If the court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor (the individual or group), the business will be ordered to make their website accessible, and may have to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees in some cases. Failure to meet these obligations in the time allotted may result in a civil contempt of court charge or additional legal action by the plaintiff.
Because web designers tend to work as freelancers on a project basis, they must be excellent communicators, willing to manage their own work, and available on your schedule. Some critical skills, such as working collaboratively and responding enthusiastically to feedback, aren’t core to good web design, but make working with a web designer much easier. Finally, look for a web designer who has cross-functional knowledge, such as understanding marketing and conversion rate optimization in addition to web design.
In some circumstances, longer and more detailed text will be necessary to convey the same meaningful information that other visitors to the website can see. For example, a map showing the locations of neighborhood branches of a city library needs a tag with much more information in text format. In that instance, where the map conveys the locations of several facilities, add a “longdesc” tag that includes a text equivalent description of each location shown on the map – e.g., “City Center Library, 433 N. Main Street, located on North Main Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue.”
The legal issue for websites is whether website operators are operating “a place of public accommodation.” The statute lists 12 different types of public accommodations including somewhat of a catchall that includes “other sales or rental establishment.” The list, created when the law was passed in 1988, conceivably covers most commercial establishments, but does not expressly include websites.
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.
Gray Reed & McGraw is a Texas-based, full-service law firm with over 120 lawyers in Dallas and Houston. Since 1985, our firm philosophy has been to provide high-quality legal services in a streamlined manner, to provide sophisticated and complex legal advice that is reasonably priced, and to provide big-firm results with small-firm efficiency. For 30 years, we have dedicated ourselves to achieving success for our clients, as they define success – whether that is winning a critical lawsuit, closing a key deal, consulting to save taxes, or just giving good business advice to avoid disputes.
For most businesses, the need for ADA web compliance means they will need to make at least some adjustments to all of their online marketing strategies. For instance, if your company provides tax preparation services, all of the tax forms you provide for customers to download would need to meet accessibility standards. Any online tax preparation services that you offer would also need to be configured so they meet ADA standards, as would your mobile app.
Further complicating the issue, the U.S. recently appeared to be on the verge of adopting more comprehensive accessibility requirements. Federal regulations slated to go into effect in January 2018 would have held federal websites to the standards of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, the set of guidelines that provide the basis for online accessibility rules for most of Europe and many other nations around the world. The current administration, however, has withdrawn this requirement as part of a general push toward deregulation, leaving the online applications of the ADA as murky as ever.
The trick to finding top web designers is to understand what you’re trying to build. There’s a big difference between designing a landing page meant to be the receiving end of a sales funnel and building an enterprise site that will serve corporate clients. The web designer is responsible for translating your unique brand identity into the visual elements that make up a website. The cost of your project will depend largely on your scope of work and the specific skills needed to bring your project to life.
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.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also enforces Title II of the ADA relating to access to programs, services and activities receiving HHS federal financial assistance. This includes ensuring that people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have access to sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids in hospitals and clinics when needed for effective communication.
I should mention one caveat to all of this. Businesses that are required to comply but don't have the ability to bring their websites into compliance can provide an accessible alternative to provide the same information, goods, and services that they provide online, like a staffed phone line. The trick, however, is that this option has to provide at least equal access, including in terms of hours of operation. And, as we know, the internet is around 24/7, so good luck with that.
While the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on online accessibility is likely to remain vague for the foreseeable future, there is no question that equal access is a major concern for users across America, and for the courts that serve those users. In lieu of a clear set of national guidelines, abiding by WCAG accessibility standards remains the best option for most organizations. It’s not just a smart way to avoid accessibility lawsuits and negative publicity—providing accessible solutions for all users is just the right thing to do.
Courts have essentially taken three positions when approached with this issue. Some courts take the position that the ADA applies to all commercial sites because the law was meant to protect disabled individuals from having a more difficult time than able-bodied individuals from doing business. That is why the website Scribd was unable to get a case summarily dismissed and ended up settling.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was instituted in 1990 in an effort to end discrimination based on differing abilities. Drawing heavily from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established protections against discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin, the ADA went a step further by requiring organizations to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities.