What Utilities Need to Know About Web Accessibility

web accessibility to pay bills online

Like other businesses across the United States, utility companies must make their websites accessible. This means that anyone, including people with disabilities, can use a website without encountering barriers. If you own or operate a utility company and your website isn’t accessible – or you’re not sure if it is – put this on your priority list for 2018. Not only will you improve customer service, but you’ll reduce your organization’s exposure to risk.

Internet access is quickly becoming essential to everyday life. These days, consumers routinely go online to find information and perform tasks such as banking and shopping. For people with disabilities – who number more than 60 million in the United States – these processes are often fraught with challenges.

People who are blind or have low vision need alternative ways to perceive words and images on websites. People with physical disabilities may need to use devices other than a conventional mouse and keyboard. People who are deaf or hard of hearing need text or captioning for the content of audio and video recordings. These barriers are usually solvable, if your website creators include the necessary accessibility features.

If your website isn’t accessible, people with disabilities can’t use it to look up account information, read bills, make payments, communicate electronically with your company, etc. Utility companies also occupy a unique space among consumer services. Americans depend on their public utilities for energy and water – essential services that contribute to our well-being and quality of life. Utility websites provide information about service outages and other interruptions, as well as emergency situations. Imagine if you couldn’t get that information without someone else’s help. Improving website accessibility is a positive step for customer service and satisfaction. It’s also required by law.

Web accessibility and the ADA

You’re likely aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Enacted in 1990, the ADA is a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination and guarantees that they have the same access to employment opportunities, goods and services, and participation in government services and programs.

The ADA’s Title III regulations prohibit discrimination in places of “public accommodation,” which covers a wide range of facilities including sales, rental and service establishments. All of them are places with physical locations, since the legislation was written when web browsers were still in their infancy, and businesses didn’t yet have websites.

The ADA still doesn’t include web accessibility standards, but the Department of Justice (DOJ), which enforces the law, has indicated numerous times that it considers websites offering goods and services to consumers to be places of public accommodation. We have written previously about the DOJ’s evaluations of ADA compliance in communities across the country, and subsequent legal cases in which the department compelled defendants to improve their web accessibility.

In December 2017, after years of delays in developing web accessibility regulations, the DOJ announced that it was withdrawing any previous legislation and that it is reviewing whether they are “necessary and appropriate”1. That doesn’t mean companies are off the hook. Even without ADA web standards, it’s clear that the DOJ expects accessibility. Any business or organization that decides to wait and see what happens is taking a huge gamble – and the DOJ isn’t the only entity scrutinizing websites.

Since 2015, hundreds of federal lawsuits concerning web accessibility have been launched against companies across the United States by individuals and advocacy groups2 – more than 800 cases in 2017 alone3. Several were filed by law firm Carlson Lynch, which has also sent hundreds of letters to companies, including several utilities4, demanding that they pay a settlement and hire its technical expert to make their websites ADA-compliant.

Legal observers view this sort of tactic as a shakedown attempt5. Nevertheless, responding to such demand letters requires time and expense (legal fees, settlements, fines, lost productivity, lost business). Courts have ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in several recent ADA website cases6.

Get to know WCAG

By now you might be thinking, “Okay, I’m ready to improve my utility’s web accessibility. How do I start, if the ADA has no web standards?”

Enter the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These are technical requirements for making websites fully accessible to people with various disabilities. WCAG is developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3), which includes accessibility experts around the world. The current version, WCAG 2.0, was released in 2008. These guidelines are the most accepted web accessibility standards worldwide.

Although the DOJ hasn’t officially adopted WCAG 2.0, it has advocated for conformance to these guidelines (levels A and AA) numerous times, including in court filings and settlements.

And, just to give you a heads-up, the guidelines are getting an update – WCAG 2.1 – likely by mid-2018. It includes more requirements than version 2.0 for people with cognitive and learning disabilities and those with low vision, and it addresses mobile accessibility. If your website needs an accessibility overhaul, however, don’t wait for 2.1. It’s meant to be backwards-compatible; when it comes out, websites that meet 2.0’s requirements will still be ADA-compliant. Read more coverage of WCAG 2.1 here.

What about Section 508?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that institutions receiving federal funds solicit, procure, maintain and use all Information and Communication Technology (ICT), including websites, software and electronic documents, in ways that are accessible to the public, including people with disabilities. If your utility receives federal grants or other federal funds, you must make your site 508-compliant. This further improves customer service and protects your utility from lawsuits and discrimination complaints. A discussion with reputable accessibility consultants will help you understand your obligations.

More steps to improve web accessibility

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. Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Notice of Withdrawal of Four Previously Announced Rulemaking Actions, FederalRegister.gov, 2017, and No ADA Web Accessibility Regs? No Excuses, Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2017
  2. Lawsuits Challenging Website Accessibility under the ADA Gain Momentum, Harris Beach PLLC, 2017, and Avoiding the Website Accessibility Shakedown, ABA Banking Journal, 2017
  3. 2017 Website Accessibility Lawsuit Recap: A Tough Year for Businesses, ADA Title III, Seyfarth Shaw
  4. Should Utilities Worry About Having ADA-Compliant Websites?, For the Defense, 2016
  5. The Scourge of Website ADA Claims, Lockton, 2016, and Avoiding the Website Accessibility Shakedown, ABA Banking Journal, 2017
  6. Courts Continue to Find that the Americans with Disabilities Act Covers Websites, Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2017
  7. Section 508, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 2018.

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