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 On December 26, 2017, the Department announced that those regulations were officially withdrawn.
The good news for potential defendants is that the only remedies available in private ADA suits are injunctions that force you to come into compliance and attorneys’ fees. If the Department of Justice gets involved, they can seek civil fines and penalties. Hence, you need to do the risk/benefit analysis as to whether it is worth challenging the claim or not. This report says the lawsuits are on the rise.
I have previous experience with a company that sold a platform to help alleviate ADA compliance issues on websites. From my understanding litigation is being brought to a few industries with it beginning to trickle down into others. Government agencies, education, banking, and law firms were some of the early initiators that were paying more attention to ADA before any lawsuits approached their door.
Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
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.
“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.)
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.”
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.
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.
That carousel or image slider on your site looks beautiful. That stunning video on autoplay may have cost thousands to produce. Users with cognitive limitations, however, may not comprehend your information quickly enough before the view changes or your video ends. Other users may want to start over, or go back and review something they saw or heard.
The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
The question of ADA’s exact wording comes down to two issues: 1) whether the ADA applies to a website at all, and 2) if ADA applies only to websites that have a physical connection to goods and services available at a physical store or location, or if it applies to all websites even if they don’t have physical spaces. Courts are split on these issues but one thing is for certain: the tide is moving toward ADA compliance for websites, and the lack of specific legal wording prohibiting web discrimination has not stopped businesses from being sued.
Hey OB – Disclaimer – none of this is legal advice and you’d want to check with a lawyer to know if you’re at risk for any action if you’re not ADA compliant. Based on what we’ve seen if you don’t have a physical retail or service location, and you don’t receive any funding from the government you likely aren’t required to have a website that would be considered compliant. Some people expect that to change in the next few years, but that’s what we know for now. Let us know if you have more questions or would like to test your site.
You are correct, ADA defines an “employer” as any person who is 1) engaged in an industry affecting commerce; 2) employes 15 or more full-time employees each work day; and 3) for at least 20 or more calendar weeks in the year. In the context of physical spaces, ADA would not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees. However, courts don’t seem to have come to a consensus on what digital compliance really should look like. Because websites can be accessed anywhere in the country, small business owners might potentially face lawsuits in unfavorable jurisdictions. If you are a small business owner, I would recommend consulting with an accessibility lawyer and ask what they recommend.