Web Accessibility: Get to Know the Laws… and the Cause

web accessibility laws

Web accessibility means a barrier-free experience for people with disabilities when they’re online. Behind the scenes, that means that the websites they visit have been designed with specific standards in mind – standards that accommodate the needs or assistive technologies of people who have disabilities. For the users themselves, it means that the websites they visit work flawlessly.

If you happen to be a person with a disability, you know what a pleasure and relief it is to have a seamless online experience.

If, on the other hand, you aren’t sure what web accessibility looks and feels like, how about a demonstration of web inaccessibility?

Imagine visiting the website of a business or organization – expecting to make a purchase, register for a program, or research a solution – only to discover that the website is useless to you. You can’t read what’s on the home page, because the designer has decided to use a pale-colored font against a paler background. You try to enlarge the text, but it overlaps with other content on the page, resulting in a scrambled mess. Or you start filling out a form, only to have it disappear from your screen, half completed, because you didn’t type fast enough. Perhaps you try clicking on the instructions, but they’re presented in video format – uncaptioned, so you can’t hear what is being said.

Clearly, this website was designed with only a certain group of users in mind – namely, users who don’t have disabilities. As a result, it’s filled with barriers that discriminate against people who do happen to have disabilities. For them, visiting websites like this one can be a giant source of frustration. Ultimately, it can turn them off an entire company or brand – and turn them towards a competitor.

The Largest Minority Group

People with disabilities are often referred to as the largest minority group in the world. That’s because one in five people on the planet has some kind of a disability. It might be a physical disability, like cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. It might be a sensory disability, such as blindness or deafness. It might be an invisible disability, like epilepsy or attention deficit disorder. Odds are that several people in your social circle, extended family, workplace or neighbourhood have disabilities.

So it may be a minority group, but it’s a sizeable one. And everyone in this group benefits from web accessibility – which is something to consider when you’re engaging potential customers online.

Anti-Discrimination Laws

The size of this group may be impressive, but that’s not the only reason why web accessibility matters. Another very important one is that there is legislation in place making it compulsory to treat people with disabilities fairly by accommodating their needs. Like other minority groups, people with disabilities can sometimes face discrimination. These laws have been passed to guarantee their equality.

Let’s review some of them.

The Rehabilitation Act: Section 504
The Rehabilitation Act was enacted in 1973. Section 504 of this act requires all federal agencies and all federal government-funded programs, activities and organizations to accommodate people with disabilities. This was the first civil rights law in the United States to specifically protect this minority group from discrimination.

The Rehabilitation Act: Section 508
Section 508 was added to The Rehabilitation Act to take electronic information and communication technology into account. Under this section, these technologies have the same accessibility requirement as other aspects of government-funded programs. Section 508 sets out standards for accessibility in various kinds of technologies, including websites and apps. Earlier this year, the standards were updated to be consistent with universal web accessibility guidelines.

Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. This sweeping legislation bans discrimination against any person with a disability in the United States. Every public or private organization – federally funded or not – that serves the public must follow this law in its day-to-day activities, ensuring that all of its services are equally usable by people with disabilities. Web accessibility is by no means excluded. Under the ADA, all communications technology, apps and websites must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. In fact, many successful lawsuits have been brought against companies with inaccessible websites.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Section 1557
Section 1557, part of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), prohibits discrimination in the provision of health services and activities. It names six protected groups; people with disabilities are included. Any health program that’s funded or administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as health insurance marketplaces (health exchanges) and their insurance plans, must not discriminate in the services they offer. Thus any web-based services or information must be equally usable by people with disabilities.

But Wait… There’s More

These aren’t the only laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Individual states have their own human rights laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination1, the New York State Human Rights Law2, and the Unruh Civil Rights Act3 (California Civil Code, Section 51). There are also laws that prohibit disability-based discrimination within specific industries, such as the Air Carrier Access Act.

It’s important to note that even if your organization falls outside of the parameters of other human rights laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act will apply. Thus if you offer web-based information and services to the general public, accessibility is a must. To learn more about web accessibility and how it benefits your organization, download our whitepaper “The Jargon Free Guide to Web Accessibility.”

Web Accessibility Standards

Fortunately, users with disabilities and other stakeholders around the world have already agreed on a single set of web accessibility standards. It’s known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 . These guidelines cover all of the typical barriers that people come up against when websites aren’t accessible, and explain how to ensure they are eliminated. When a website is designed according to WCAG 2.0 guidelines, it is considered fully accessible to people with disabilities – and it meets any legal requirements to accommodate these users.

Of course, there are other benefits to having an accessible website. Remember earlier, when we talked about the largest minority in the world? This is a market well worth reaching out to, with an estimated $200-billion-plus in spending power. When you welcome people with disabilities to your brand and offer them a quality digital experience, the rewards may go far beyond obeying the law.

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 services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.

References

  1. New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. State of New Jersey.
  2. New York State Human Rights Law Division of Human Rights.
  3. Unruh Civil Rights Act California Legislative Information, 2016.