If you own a business, you probably know that your physical spaces must be accessible to people with disabilities. It is easy to see how installing wheelchair ramps, elevators, or braille signs may accommodate your employees and customers, and ensure that they can fully access your business. However, keeping your physical spaces up to code is not enough; your website must also accommodate people with disabilities.
Title Three of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all “places of public accommodation” be accessible to people with disabilities. Examples of places of public accommodation include hotels, restaurants, retail stores, movie theatres, etc.
It is unclear exactly how web access fits into this definition. The ADA was passed back in 1988 and amended in 1990, and does not contain a regulation that specifically mentions websites.
Courts have taken three different approaches in determining whether the ADA applies to a website. First, some courts have taken the sweeping position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all websites. Others have held that the ADA applies only to physical spaces and therefore websites do not have an obligation to comply with the ADA. And some courts land somewhere in the middle, holding that a website must have a “nexus” or connection to a physical location in order to fall under the purview of the ADA.
With all this uncertainty, compliance has proven difficult for businesses.
However, there are two sets of guidelines that companies can use as guideposts to make it more likely that their sites are compliant with the ADA. First, take a look at the Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG provides companies with a technical standard for making websites accessible to people with disabilities. While not an official regulation, WCAG standards have been used by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in enforcement actions and private settlements.
Second, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act provides some hints as to what ADA website regulations may look like. Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act In 1998 and requires federal agencies to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities.
Fortunately, the DOJ is expected to release guidelines by 2018 that will instruct businesses on how to make their websites appropriately accessible. However, your business cannot afford to wait for these guidelines to start thinking about compliance.
Why You Should Meet the Standards
Recently, plaintiffs’ firms have been sending letters to businesses that allege their sites are not accessible and demand settlement terms that often include hefty attorneys’ fees. The chart below shows the industries that have been hit the hardest:
Making your website accessible to all people protects you not only from an intimidating letter from a plaintiff’s attorney, but it also makes good business sense in that it opens up your business so that everyone can enjoy what you have to offer.
While the ADA guidelines may seem daunting, consider that in 2015, the CDC reported America had approximately:
- 37.2 million adults with hearing trouble;
- 22.9 million adults with vision trouble, and;
- 74.8 million adults with at least one basic actions difficulty or complex activity limitation.
The CDC also reported that more than 16 million people in the United States are living with cognitive impairment, which includes disorders like epilepsy.
Coming Into Compliance
So how can you ensure that your website is compliant and minimize your risk, despite the lack of clarity from the ADA?
First, understand which people with disabilities are meant to be protected by the ADA. People who are blind or have low vision, people who are deaf or have hearing loss, people with learning disabilities or cognitive limitations, people with mobility issues, and people with photosensitivity must all be able to use your website.
Next, try using a web accessibility tool that will quickly scan your site and point out areas that are inaccessible to people with disabilities. Tests like these are important because they not only show you points for improvement, but they are likely the sources targeted by plaintiffs.
Once you have decided to modify your site to comply, look into guidelines like the ones mentioned previously. The DOJ has suggested that WCAG 2.0 hints at what website compliance with the ADA might look like.
WCAG standards seek to make a website perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Here are some quick tips the WCAG gives on its website:
- Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
- Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
- Create content that can be presented in
including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Give users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not use content that causes seizures.
- Help users navigate and find content.
- Make text readable and understandable.
- Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.
For assistance responding to demand letters, or for more information on tools for evaluating your website and bringing it into ADA compliance, please contact Jane Gleaves.