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ADA Reform: What Would It Mean for Website Accessibility?

person in wheelchair reading about ADA website accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act, in force since 1990, is a law that protects people with disabilities – the largest minority group in the country – from discrimination. Businesses are obliged to treat these individuals just like everyone else, ensuring stores and services are accessible, as long as it’s not an onerous task (accessibility must be “readily achievable”).

The ADA also applies to websites, since so many companies today are interacting with their customers online – allowing them to browse products, place orders, and engage with customer support.

Websites and apps that are accessible are designed in such a way that people who are deaf can understand all audio content (incorporating features such as video captioning), that people who are blind can find out an image looks like (e.g. using alternate text), and that people with restricted mobility can use a keyboard, not just a mouse, to move around your website.

When it comes to the ADA, website accessibility is not difficult to achieve, and there are ADA compliance consultants and web accessibility guidelines available to help with this process. An accessible, easy-to-use website tends to expand a company’s reach, well beyond the market of people with disabilities.

The ADA, when followed, allows for full participation in society by the vast community of people with disabilities. Last January, however, a bill was introduced that arguably would weaken the ADA. On February 15, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 passed in the House and has now been received in the Senate1. This bill is not yet law, but if it’s passed, it will afford less protection for a historically marginalized group, and open up more opportunities for discrimination.

About the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017

Under the current Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses have an obligation to ensure that people with disabilities such as blindness, deafness, cognitive disabilities and mobility issues are treated just like every other customer.

These individuals cannot be denied service based on their disabilities. The onus is on companies to ensure they haven’t put barriers in place that prevent anyone from accessing their website or other goods and services. All people with disabilities have a fundamental right to order merchandise online, take a web-based course, go out for a restaurant meal or cash a check at their local bank without encountering frustrating obstacles that make this impossible. If barriers exist, a company is in violation of the law.

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, however, would allow companies to ignore inaccessibility until a specific and taxing process is followed: first, a person with a disability must experience discrimination as they attempt, and fail, to access a product or service. Then they must invest time and effort in submitting a formal complaint outlining the problems they’ve encountered. After that, they must wait several more months as the company is granted a grace period in which to plan how they might address and fix these accessibility problems.

What many organizations don’t realize is that this bill could be a bad idea for your business. Below, we share five reasons why it’s more important than ever to ensure your website is fully barrier-free, right now.

1. It drives away a sizable market.

Often, your website is the first opportunity to make a positive impression on a potential customer. There’s no compelling argument for waiting until a person with a disability complains before you take steps to make your website accessible. By the time someone has encountered barriers on your website, they’ve already felt the sting of discrimination. Many people who experience online barriers will simply move on to a competitor. If, however, they do take time to prepare a complaint about your website, and are then forced to wait months for it to be resolved, they are certainly unlikely to convert into a loyal customer.

Imagine what a difference it would make to delight customers with a welcoming experience from the start, instead of presenting them with a barrier-riddled website. Americans with disabilities control over $645.3 billion in disposable income2. Are you certain you want to drive them away?

2. Accessibility is a fundamental part of doing business.

Supporters of the bill, such as co-sponsor Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, say this reform would protect business owners from lawsuits over ADA violations3. They claim it’s unfair for businesses to be on the hook for monetary damages over barriers they simply weren’t aware of. Yet the argument that businesses haven’t been given sufficient opportunity to learn about accessibility and take steps to remove barriers – and that they need a few additional months to sort it out – is weak, considering the ADA has been in force since 1990.

The reality is, all organizations today have a responsibility to ensure they’re providing accessible services, or hiring consultants to look after this aspect of their business, just as they rely on marketing experts to create dynamic advertising or IT departments to maintain their computer network.

3. People with disabilities shouldn’t be forced to police accessibility.

It shouldn’t be up to ordinary citizens with disabilities to compel organizations to consider accessibility. That’s why we have civil rights legislation. Can you think of any other situation in which it’s acceptable to ban a marginalized group from buying your product online, or reading the information posted on your website, until a member of that group has sent you a letter demanding you treat them fairly? The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 would force people with disabilities to police accessibility, when perhaps what they’d rather do is shop and pay their bills and get on with their busy schedules.

Rep. Peter Roskam, who is against the reform, has posted a statement on his website that reads in part: “We have a responsibility as a nation to ensure that our family, friends and members of our community with disabilities are provided equal access and accommodations everywhere they go. When necessary accommodations are not available, individuals should not have to face a burdensome and resource consuming process to make legitimate compliance claims.4

4. The bill isn’t expected to help with the “lawsuit problem.”

Is there a problem with overzealous litigation? First, it’s important to note that the vast majority of ADA lawsuits have not been frivolous. They have stemmed from real and frustrating problems that occurred because an organization refused to consider accessibility. Furthermore, as Harvard Law School columnist Shailin Thomas points out, the ADA does not actually allow for monetary damages. Plaintiffs can only request improvements to accessibility and coverage of their legal fees. “Monetary damages for failing to comply with accessibility requirements are only available under state law, which would not be affected by the amendment to the ADA,” writes Thomas5.

Besides, the bill would not serve to eliminate lawsuits – it would only delay them, unless the defendant fixed their accessibility problems. An organization can avoid legal proceedings altogether by ensuring its website is accessible now.

5. Showing outward support for a weaker civil rights law is not positive publicity.

Rep. Poe has posted online a list of “supporting groups” of the proposed legislation. The list includes the American Hotel and Lodging Association, American Resort Development Association, the International Franchise Association, the National Association of Theatre Owners, the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Realtors and the National Council of Chain Restaurants, among others3. Unfortunately, showing public support of this legislation risks demonstrating either an ignorance of the issues, or a total disregard for 19 percent of the population. Making an effort to improve accessibility proactively, on the other hand, is a much better look.

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.

References

  1. H.R.620 – ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 congress.gov, 2017
  2. Translate Different Into Value Return on Disability Group, 2016
  3. ADA Education and Reform Act Passes House U.S. Congressman Ted Poe Second District – Texas, 2018
  4. Roskam Votes ‘No’ ADA Education and Reform Act Peter Roskam Sixth District of Illinois, 2018
  5. The Accessibility Police: How the ADA Education and Reform Act Hinders ADA Enforcement and Burdens Americans with Disabilities Harvard Law, 2018

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