An Introduction to Website Accessibility and Why You Should Care

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We are bringing you a three-part series on Website Accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what you—as a business-owner or website-owner—need to know.

 

What is Website Accessibility?

Website CodeYou may or may not have heard the term “website accessibility,” but you’ve probably heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a law, originated in 1990, that addresses the legal requirements of state and local entities and public and commercial facilities to accommodate people with physical disabilities.

Website accessibility is directly related to the American with Disabilities act in that it deals with whether or not people with disabilities can fully access the information on your website. For instance, can a person who is vision-impaired still access the information on your website since they cannot see or read it themselves? Can a person who is hearing-impaired access the podcast you posted because they cannot hear it? Can a person who does not have the use of their hands navigate through your website when they cannot operate a mouse? These are just some of the issues that website accessibility addresses.

There is a guideline that has been created by the World Wide Web Consortium (a private entity) that addresses website accessibility. This guideline—the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines, or the WCAG—is widely accepted as the roadmap to follow in the quest for accessibility. A quick read of the WCAG will have most non-web developers (and even some developers!) befuddled, so we hope to simplify the guidelines for you in parts 2 and 3 of our series.

 

Great, there’s a guideline, so what are the regulations that state a website must be accessible?

United States Capitol BuildingTitle III of the ADA requires that public accommodations provide equal access to goods, benefits and services, but the internet as we know it today didn’t really come online (pun intended!) until the mid-nineties. Therefore, the original law from 1990 makes no mention of whether or not “public accommodations” includes the internet. And since the law’s inception, no amendment had been added that referred specifically to websites.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said it would create regulations around this issue. From 2010 through 2016, the DOJ put pressure on organizations (such as Louisiana Tech University, Florida State, and Carnival Cruise Lines) to make their websites accessible through litigation and settlement agreements. Yet, still, no standard regulation was put into place. And while this DOJ pressure continued into 2017, under the guidance of the Trump administration, the DOJ officially withdrew its plan to create the regulations it promised in 2010. Just this past year, Congress and the DOJ have been trying to pass the buck back and forth to each other, each claiming regulations are necessary, and each claiming it’s the other’s responsibility to make the laws.

Note: Federal agencies do have laws for accessibility of their websites in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Likewise, airline carriers have regulations in the Air Carrier Access Act.

 

You don’t need a law to bring a lawsuit.

Regardless of the lack of regulation, businesses left and right are being sued over their websites failing to comply with the ADA, and in most cases, the defendants (the businesses) are, perhaps surprisingly, losing. The bulk of these lawsuits are occurring in California, New York, and Florida. Here’s a few examples:

New York Wineries Sued over Website Accessibility for Visually Impaired

50 Colleges Hit with ADA Lawsuits

Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment Sued over Website Accessibility

Before you think to yourself “But I’m not Beyoncé or Cornell University,” consider that the big names are just the ones making the news. According to Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a lawfirm specializing in defense against ADA cases, 2018 saw a whopping 10,163 ADA Title III lawsuits throughout the country. That’s a 34% increase over the prior year.

To put it very simply, judges are siding with the plaintiffs in these cases on the belief that the internet and websites are considered “public accommodations” and therefore are subject to the ADA. And whereas some judges are finding for the defendants because websites are not clearly defined in the regulations of the ADA, in many cases, those rulings are being overturned in appeals courts.

What are businesses losing in all this? Money. Lots and lots of money. Damages, legal fees, and settlements are costly and are being paid by the defendants.

 

How concerned should a business owner be about website accessibility?

The suits are happening with more and more regularity, and as a business owner or a website owner, you should absolutely be concerned and proactive about the accessibility of your website. Accessibility is not typically the first thing on a developer’s mind when building a website. Most businesses don’t know to ask for an accessible website, and most developers don’t even know they should be building accessible sites. With the lawsuits only recently becoming newsworthy, it is highly unlikely that your website is already fully accessible, even if it was newly developed. And even a newly-developed, accessible website can quickly become inaccessible if those updating it are not trained properly in keeping it accessible.

The hardest thing to swallow about all this, though, is that although the WCAG standard does exist, and businesses can put forward a good faith effort in making their site accessible, because the WCAG is not written law in the ADA, technically, that may not even protect you from a lawsuit.

The best course of action any business with a website can take is to start addressing accessibility on their website. You’ll want to involve your website developer, whoever on your staff manages or edits your website, as well as your lawyer. We’ll start diving into step one in part two where we’ll discuss how to audit your site for accessibility. And in part three, we’ll walk you through how to go about making your website accessible. Stay Tuned!