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 The current administration, however, has withdrawn this requirement as part of a general push toward deregulation, leaving the online applications of the ADA as murky as ever.
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.
The ADA statute identifies who is a person with a disability, who has obligations under the ADA, general non-discrimination requirements and other basic obligations. It delegates fleshing out those obligations to federal agencies. The agencies issue regulations and design standards. The regulations have the details on the rights of people with disabilities and responsibilities of employers, state and local governments, transportation providers, businesses and non-profit organizations. The design standards specify how many entrances need to be accessible, how many toilet rooms and the design for those elements. To know what the ADA requires, you need to read the law, regulations and design standards.
Your website looks good, is functional and provides a great user experience. But, can a disabled person use it? Can a visually-impaired person understand what your photos and other non-text aspects of your website are and do? If not, you may need to make some changes or you may receive a letter from lawyers threatening Americans with Disability Act, or ADA, claims.
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 On December 26, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that they have withdrawn the Obama-era Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned in this article which intended to require ADA website compliance.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.”
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.
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.
The truth is, when you’re assembling like a furniture, you’re not a professional furniture builder, and therefore the quality and the output is not going to be as good. And that metaphor applies to website design. Most people are not professional digital marketers or designers or understand user personas, or how to get traffic, or any of those things. And so, not only are you using all of your time to build the website but then you’re not getting as high-quality an output as you would as if you just hired someone who did that full time.
“Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.” (Read full article.)
It’s well-known that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires brick-and-mortar businesses be accessible to all patrons. This includes considerations like wheelchair accessibility and Braille or large print for blind and low-vision patrons, among other things. The ADA references “public accommodations,” and outlines 12 categories that essentially covers all types of public-facing businesses. However, the legislation does not address public-facing websites.
Just as you wouldn’t trust an overweight personal trainer or a skinny chef, you should probably never trust a designer with an ugly looking website or an SEO specialist who doesn’t rank well on Google or an “internet marketer” who uses direct outreach to generate leads. And by that I mean, if someone is selling you the idea of getting traffic through Google or Pay Per Click or Social Media, but they’re using cold outreach, like, they’re direct emailing you or they’re using word of mouth to get in contact with you, they’re really not practicing what they preach.
If you do get sued, if you immediately remediate your website, you may be able to get the lawsuit dismissed on mootness (there’s no longer anything in dispute, i.e. plaintiffs are arguing your website is inaccessible but you’ve already made it accessible). This definitely does not mean you should wait to fix your website but it does mean you may have an out.
According to Creating an Accessible Presence for the Lodging Industry by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, “Many businesses don’t understand that the law actually requires them to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. There is a common misperception that the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar state and local laws only deal with physical buildings and facilities, so-called “brick and mortar” establishments, and that non-building-related business operations—such as websites—are not covered by these laws. Nothing could be further from the truth—at least with respect to websites that have some sort of connection, or “nexus,” to physical places of business.”
Most recently, however, pizza chain Domino's has been brought under suit for their website not being accessible for specialty ordering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, instead upholding the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who said the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises—which are places of public accommodation.”
Hi! I'm Gina, a freelance graphic and web designer that specializes in building brand identities and intuitive websites for new entrepreneurs and small businesses. My goal is to help you build a brand that accurately conveys your essence and is flexible enough to evolve with you as you grow. Let's work together to find and hone your brand voice, so that your audience can hear your message loud and clear!