Web Accessibility

Written by Colby Johnson

The History

When the World Wide Web was created in the 1990’s (officially proposed by Tim Burners Lee in 1989), nobody imagined it would evolve to become what we now know it to be. In the beginning, the web was used to share and collaborate content in plain text. As the Web evolved and became more complex, so did its use cases and availability.  

In 1996, The United States Department of Justice officially ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to Internet Web Pages. The purpose of this legislation was to remove any obstacle that would inhibit an individual with disabilities from accessing a public or private place otherwise available to the general public.

In order to keep up with this transforming nature of the web and ensure uniform accessibility, it is critical for developers and designers to follow these  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).


The Challenges

The highly innovative and intrinsic nature of the web make it very difficult to govern accessibility with objective standards. Web accessibility guidelines are updated over time in order to keep up and adapt with technology and the people who use it.

Following the WCAG guidelines will allow your websites to remain up-to-date and accessible, but be aware that some of the guidelines are dependent on other updates and it is important to take these into consideration.

The schematic markup and code that the web consists of is also in a continuous state of change, and these changes are generally implemented and release over a period of several years. Therefore, time itself will eventually cause a website to have accessibility violations if it is not updated to reflect the current standards set forth by the ADA..

So, keeping up with the guidelines and current standards should keep you from being in violation and potentially facing a lawsuit right? Not exactly. While we have guidelines, we don’t have a direct interpretation of the law as it pertains to the web.


Unintended Consequences

The first Web related ADA lawsuit was filed in 2000 against AOL by The National Federation for the Blind (NFB vs AOL). The lawsuit stated that “Nine individual blind people who would have enrolled with AOL…. found that they could not even sign-up for the service’s e-mail and other online options without the help of a sighted person.” In the years following, lawsuits such as these have been on the rise.

The LA Times has a great explanation of the growing disconnect between the legal system enforcing ADA compliance and businesses trying to keep up with it:

“Though the ADA was enacted before websites were ubiquitous, many courts have interpreted the term “public accommodation” in the act’s Title III to encompass Internet companies. But clear rules for applying the ADA to websites have yet to be established. For instance, the courts are divided about whether all commercial websites are subject to the ADA, or just those associated with brick-and-mortar businesses. Under President Obama, the Department of Justice took the broader position, but it didn’t issue any actual regulations providing specific guidance to businesses. Those are now expected in 2018. In the meantime, millions of businesses with websites have the worst of both worlds: mandates without directions…….applying Title III to websites — and to online content in general — is highly problematic, because websites are connected to the global economy. Making websites accessible to all is a far more complicated endeavor than modifying the premises of a business to accommodate disabled customers or disabled employees.”

According to Amy KJose Anderson, in a article she wrote for the American Legislative Exchange Counsel, many ADA lawsuits are propagated by attorneys who seek out violations to make a quick buck.

She writes:

“An important reform in advancing equal access for the disabled has unfortunately been used by some bad actors for monetary gain more than disability advocacy and threatens the small business economy in some states…some of the serial litigators are doing more to rake in damages than increase accessibility. As many states have statutes that go beyond the federal bill and offer individual lawsuit filers cash payments as well as attorney expenses, the incentives to file a lawsuit shift from accessibility to cash recovery.”


Moving Forward

In February of 2018, an amendment was passed (ADA Education and Reform Act (HR 620)) by the House of Representatives to reduce ADA lawsuits and give businesses a chance to become compliant with ADA guidelines before facing a lawsuit.

This amendment is a step in the right direction for businesses that make an honest attempt to accommodate everyone. However, businesses and individuals with public websites should heed ADA compliance and implement best practices moving forward. In addition, implementing accessibility guidelines when starting a project is much more cost efficient then reworking guidelines into a pre-existing website.

Everyone has a right to accessibility and no one should be penalized or restricted because of a disability. As the web matures, accessibility for the disabled continually progresses. By keeping up with the latest standards, we will continue to solve accessibility issues with more accuracy than ever before.

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