Can everyone who visits your website use it to its full capacity? That’s probably not a question you ask too often.
Think about it this way: Is everything in your business environment accessible for people with disabilities? You probably can answer that question without hesitation. Today, most people are at least somewhat familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You may know that entrances and bathrooms, for example, need to be compliant with ADA regulations for customers and employees.
What you may not know is that these laws can also apply to your online presence.
Local governments have to comply with federal laws that protect accessibility for people with disabilities, and this doesn’t end at physical accommodations for customers and employees. The ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act need to be considered in your website use.
Government agencies and organizations specifically have been diligent in providing accessible solutions to the physical environment for citizens and employees, however, many organizations still haven’t completely complied with accessibility obligations through their digital properties.
This isn’t entirely intentional. Technology moves rapidly. The ways that people, businesses, and government entities communicate has evolved immensely over the last few years alone. Local, state, and federal governing bodies now often communicate directly with citizens through websites, email, and even social media platforms.
People log into their local government’s websites for a lot of different reasons. They might need information on services, such as garbage or water. People will check the local website to verify regulations and programs they need information about. Other possible reasons to check a government website include paying bills, parking tickets, fees, and simply checking the latest news in their community.
Government websites make it convenient and efficient to accomplish these tasks, but many people with disabilities can’t use the website because it lacks basic accessibility features. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially if they also face barriers to visiting government offices in person or calling for information on the phone. All of a city’s residents should have equal access to online government services and information.
Accessibility Laws and Municipal Websites
Local government websites are required to comply with the following federal accessibility laws:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): ADA Title II “covers all activities of State and local governments regardless of the government entity’s size or receipt of Federal funding.¹” It requires state and local governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services and activities.
- Rehabilitation Act: This act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.²” Section 508, an amendment to the original act, deals specifically with electronic and information technology, such as websites and electronic documents.
Local governments that don’t meet these legal obligations risk complaints, civil lawsuits, loss of federal funding, and intervention from the Department of Justice (DOJ). According to The Orlando Sentinel, nearly 2,000 lawsuits were filed in federal courts alleging accessibility issues for the disabled.³
How can you make your website compliant and do a better job of serving citizens with disabilities? The answer lies in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1, and Web Accessibility
WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global network of accessibility experts whose goal is to make the internet inclusive for everyone. WCAG 2.0, released in 2008, is the world’s most commonly accepted technical requirements for web accessibility. It has 12 guidelines, divided into four categories: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. The guidelines have three levels of accessibility: A (basic), AA (addresses most major issues) and AAA (highest).
The authorities that enforce the ADA, Section 508 and other accessibility regulations point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard for organizations and governments. Examples of criteria listed under Level AA include providing a text alternative for all non-text content (such as dialogue in a video), creating content that can be presented in different ways (such as a simpler layout), providing the means to change the size of text, and ensuring that color isn’t the only visual means of conveying information.
Local governments can make these improvements efficiently and cost-effectively with the assistance of a web accessibility specialist or accessibility firm that is well versed in WCAG 2.0 requirements. Doing so not only ensures that your digital properties meet your ADA and Section 508 obligations, but it also improves overall functionality and ease of use for everyone.
In June 2018, the W3C added to these requirements in a newer recommendation that acts as a companion to WCAG 2.0. This one is aptly named, WCAG 2.1. Essentially, WCAG 2.1 seeks fill out the original requirements and address areas which weren’t adequately covered. Some of these issues include mobile technology and cognitive disabilities.
Technology will continue to evolve, so these requirements will need to be amended to meet unforeseen developments, both in technology and in recognizing previously unknown disabilities.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice (which enforces the ADA) released an online guide for state and local governments, recommending that they develop an action plan to improve web accessibility. Its advice is still helpful for governments today; here is a simplified version that, combined with the requirements listed in WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 provide an excellent template for making your digital properties accessible and inclusive:
- Establish a policy that your webpages will be accessible.
- Ensure that all new and modified webpages and digital content are accessible.
- Develop a plan for making your existing web content more accessible.
- Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for webpage and content development are properly trained.
- Provide a way for visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or e-mail address on your home page.
- Periodically enlist people with disabilities to test your pages for ease of use.
What’s New About WCAG 2.1?
WCAG 2.1 expands the guidance provided in the previous iteration to include more coverage of mobile accessibility and provisions for people with low vision and cognitive and learning disabilities. With these updates, WCAG 2.1 helps organizations to improve inclusion and better serve a wider audience with 17 new requirements.
Learn more by downloading our interactive WCAG 2.1 compliance checklist — applicable to any professional interested in improving their organization’s digital accessibility.
- ADA Update: A Primer for State and Local Governments U.S. Department of Justice, 2015
- A Guide to Disability Rights Law U.S. Department of Justice, 2009
- Local governments on alert over lawsuits targeting ADA violations over website documents Orlando Sentinel, January 2019
- Access Board Updates Requirements for Information and Communication Technology United States Access Board, January 2017
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.