I have been working in the Human Services field since 1996, primarily working with people with developmental disabilities.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was enacted, the Internet wasn't something open to the public. The issues of accessibility for people with disabilities were considered in the context of government buildings and businesses that were places of public accommodation; what are called the brick-and-mortar stores, real, physical buildings. No one was thinking of the cyber, virtual world back then.
But times have changed. We buy things online, we find information online, we fill out forms and turn them in to government agencies online. Therefore, the question of whether ADA requirements concerning accessibility for people with disabilities might be applied to websites has been brought to the fore.
Generally, people with disabilities must have access to goods and services that are open to the public. People with disabilities have run into some barriers in terms of access to and usability of certain websites.
ADA Compliance, Websites and Some Court Cases
Early court cases in which this issue was addressed brought decisions that stated that the ADA did not apply to websites. However, some advocacy groups soon brought cases to court and the tide began to turn.
In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind sued Target for having an inaccessible website. The judge ruled that the ADA did apply to websites when those sites are a "gateway to brick-and-mortar stores".
Then, in 2012, the National Association of the Deaf brought suit against NetFlix, asking them to provide closed captioning for their hearing-impaired subscribers. For the first time, a federal judge said that the American with Disabilities Act applied to Internet-only businesses.
US Department of Justice, ADA and Websites
The US Department of Justice is in charge of enforcing ADA requirements. They've long had regulations governing how the rules apply to websites, but they have not been extremely active in enforcing them until fairly recently.
Title II of the ADA pertains to government entities, and the DOJ has been active making sure government bodies and agencies have complied with the act. However, more recently the DOJ has begun to look at and apply ADA compliance to private entities who run websites, which brings in Title III of the ADA which applies to private businesses and places of public accommodation. In fact, they have recently been instrumental in a civil case in the matter, and have decided to clarify and lay down new regulations concerning the ADA's application to websites.
It has become clear to the DOJ that we are using the Internet increasingly for such things as purchases, with a wider selection at lower prices, able to shop more conveniently at home, which would seem even more relevant to people with disabilities. In addition, the agency has realized that websites with barriers to people with disabilities and that are not accommodating to assistive technology are the equivalent of buildings that are not accommodating or accessible to people with disabilities.
Therefore, the Department had decided in 2013 they would set down clear guidelines on how the ADA applies to websites. It was expected they'd have these regulations in place by December 2013 for how Title II applies to government agencies, but they've missed the deadline, so it seems we can assume they will be setting up the new regulations in 2014. In addition, they expect to have specific regulations set forth for how Title III applies to private entities by April 2014.
For websites to be accessible, they should have:
- Text equivalent for audio
- Video with captioning
- Info text for graphics
What Will Be Expected of Websites to be ADA Compliant?
Already, many website owners follow the guidelines of such documents for accessibility to websites as the WCAG 2.0, a rather thorough document outlining how to set up an accessible website. Also, government agencies have already had checklists for websites to be ADA compliant, such as the Health and Human Services' rather lengthy list which includes how to set up code to make it easier for those who are visually-impaired to have their assistive technology read HTML accurately and make sure the site is not too loaded with images which would slow down such assistive devices from loading web pages. It also outlines that captions and text should be used for the hearing-impaired and that audio descriptions should be in place for the visually-impaired.
So, we can expect, too, that the DOJ's new guidelines will include specifications about the visually and hearing impaired. Notably, that there should be text equivalent to graphics and audio equivalent to text, and captioning for videos.
Deaf and Blind Student Using Assistive Technology
Who is Responsible for Making Websites ADA Compliant and Accessible?
It looks like website owners, private entities, businesses and government agencies and bodies will be required to have their websites accessible to people with disabilities. As our knowledge of this issue increases and as the government's requirements become clearer, it seems we will be more at ease helping to make our sites accessible to people with disabilities and more people will have the opportunity to use our sites.
In the long run, this is a positive change, in that site owners get more visitors and more visitors, meaning those with disabilities, have increased opportunities to use the Net. This is all-around good for business and for the smooth and fruitful functioning of society, with more needs being met and more diversity for the whole environment, including the Web.