Although digital accessibility is not specifically written into the ADA – this law was signed in back 1990, when web technology had not yet become an integral part of society – it has been listed as a requirement for compliance in U.S. Department of Justice rulings. Title III of the ADA is very clear that services available to the general public cannot exclude people with disabilities. When websites or apps contain accessibility barriers, this has been interpreted as a violation of the ADA. Read more about digital accessibility lawsuits here.
If you serve or do business with the public, or you manage your own work force, you may have taken some steps to ensure that you’re not discriminating against people with disabilities. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s written in law: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compels organizations, government agencies and business owners to treat customers and employees with disabilities equally. The services they provide must be usable by everyone, and cannot have barriers for individuals who happen to have disabilities.
Perhaps you’ve chosen to rent a storefront that has wheelchair access. You may have posted a sign indicating that service dogs are welcome. Maybe you’ve allowed one of your employees to adjust her work hours, since the medication she takes for a mental health condition makes her groggy in the mornings.
These are not uncommon ways to comply with the ADA. But have you considered the online dimension of your business? When it comes to your digital properties, such as your website or app, are you creating barriers for people with disabilities? And how important is it to make sure that you’re not?
Although there are no digital accessibility standards written into the ADA, the U.S. Department of Justice frequently defines digital accessibility as meeting the requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA. WCAG is the most widely used and accepted set of technical requirements for online accessibility. Thus the best practice is to aim for compliance with these requirements.
WCAG 2.0 lists numerous kinds of barriers people with disabilities often encounter online, and provides instructions for avoiding or removing these barriers. Fortunately, there are resources on the World Wide Web Consortium website to help you understand and apply WCAG. If you don’t have much web design expertise, there are also tools and consultants available to support you. You can also download the “Must Have WCAG 2.0 Checklist” here.
Let’s get into the who, the why and the how of online accessibility and its relationship to the ADA.
Who is Affected by Digital Accessibility?
As we’ve illustrated above, an inaccessible website can be interpreted as a violation of the ADA, but that isn’t the only reason why your web pages, apps and electronic documents should be barrier-free. In the U.S. alone, there are over 62 million people with some kind of disability. There are over a billion worldwide.
Their disabilities can affect, in various ways, how these individuals use the Internet and what online barriers make it more difficult – or downright impossible – for them to interact with a website or app. For example, if someone has a physical disability that makes it hard for them to grasp an object or move their fingers, they may not be able to use a computer mouse. They may navigate a website solely by using keyboard controls, like arrow keys and the Tab button. If someone is blind, they may not look at any of the images on a website. Instead, they may use a screen reader, which is a type of assistive technology that will read out all of the text on a web page.
Why Check for ADA Compliance?
Unlike a wheelchair ramp or a Braille menu, the accessibility features of a website aren’t always obvious if you don’t have a disability and aren’t using assistive technologies. You may believe your website is in compliance because you yourself haven’t noticed any accessibility barriers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Some of the subtler barriers include:
- Flickering. If a graphic or other element of your website flashes more than three times per second, it could potentially induce a seizure in someone with epilepsy.
- Poor contrast. If the colors or grey shades of the lettering don’t stand out enough against the background, they may not be seen by someone with low vision or colorblindness.
- Lack of video captions. Someone who can’t hear will not know what’s being said in a video.
- Instructions like “click the button at the bottom right to continue.” Someone who can’t see will have trouble finding the button.
- Background music that plays automatically, on a loop, with no way for the user to stop it. This can interfere with the use of a screen reader.
- Images with no alt-text captions. Alt-text is a way to describe an image for someone who is blind and relying on a screen reader to know what’s on the page.
If you aren’t certain whether or not your web page or app is accessible, you need to find a way to check, because the risk is high that there are barriers unbeknownst to you. Kept in place, those barriers will have a significant impact on users with disabilities.
In 2016, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that the University of Miami was using inaccessible technologies to make websites, assignments and teaching materials available to its students. This meant that students who had disabilities were prevented from having the same access to these resources, and thus were not provided with the same educational experience as their peers. This was discrimination, and a clear violation of the ADA. The university agreed to a number of reparations, including ensuring that its web content and online learning tools conform with WCAG 2.0, level AA. It also agreed to procure the most accessible technology possible.
In a press release, the Department of Justice commended the “courage” of the students with disabilities who came forward to assist with the investigation, noting that future students would now have “full access to technology that is crucial to academic success.1.”
How Can You Check for Digital Accessibility?
There are a few ways to check whether or not your digital properties are accessible. A popular first step is to use an automated compliance checker, especially one that tests for criteria listed in WCAG 2.0. Some automated checkers can be downloaded, while others can be used online – you upload a file, or type in a website address.
Automated testing tools will test for a few specific accessibility features, or sometimes even just one, such as whether or not the color contrast is acceptable. No automated checkers can test exhaustively for all possible barriers. For instance, when it comes to features like alt-text captions for images, human judgment is required in order to determine whether or not the alt-text is appropriate.
Another well-known drawback to automated tests is that they often miss barriers, or they identify barriers that don’t exist. They’re helpful, but they aren’t perfect.
The best way to check for digital accessibility is to partner with experts – human ones, not software programs – who will use automated checkers along with manual and functional testing to give your website or app a proper, thorough evaluation. The bonus? They can recommend fixes, offer remediation solutions, monitor your website on an ongoing basis, and even suggest other approaches for meeting the technology needs of your customers and employees with disabilities.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- Miami University Agree to Overhaul Critical Technologies to Settle Disability Discrimination Lawsuit Department of Justice, 2016