August 25, 2021
The internet has substantially changed the way federal, state, and local governments serve the public and the way in which people in general do business. As of June 18, 2021, there were more than 1.8 billion websites. This is a dramatic increase from the 15,000 identified websites in 1992 at the beginning of the world wide web. The need for accessible web design has never been greater.
Now, government websites publish information about available jobs, renewing driver’s licenses or library books, filing tax returns, and more. People communicate with their friends, get their news online, and buy goods.
In fact, in 2020, more than two billion people made online purchases with e-retail sales “surpassing 4.2 trillion U.S. dollars.” Clearly, the internet plays a vital role in the daily life of all individuals, including those with disabilities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than one billion people in the world have a disability. This includes vision impairment, hearing loss, motor disabilities, and cognitive impairments. Approximately 20 percent of the one billion live with a great functional disability.
In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. It is a civil rights act designed to prohibit discrimination against those with motor, cognitive, visual, hearing, or speech impairments. The Act applies to “all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.”
The internet was not around in 1990, so the ADA seemingly applied to brick-and-mortar businesses and governmental entities. Some examples of compliance of those businesses with the ADA were the addition of wheelchair ramps and other building design changes to allow entry by those who cannot use steps. Closed caption was required for all federally funded public service announcements.
The internet is, of course, not mentioned in the 1990 ADA even though Title III of the ADA requires businesses that are open to the public to “take steps necessary to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.” This implies ADA website accessibility is required. But that does raise a question: Does the ADA require compliance for websites?
Many people with disabilities are only able to use the internet by using assistive technology. Blind people may access the internet by using screen readers, which read the text aloud. Those who cannot use a mouse may use voice recognition software that responds to their verbal commands.
The government recognizes that “poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some from entering. Designers may not realize how simple features built into a web page will assist someone who, for instance, cannot see a computer monitor or use a mouse.”
Unfortunately for businesses and website designers, there are no specific ADA written rules about how to make websites compliant. Businesses are left in the dark about what to do and what accommodations to make and hope they do not get sued for ADA noncompliance.
Many businesses have been faced with accessibility lawsuits. Some win, some lose. Courts have been inconsistent in their rulings concerning compliance. A court in one jurisdiction may deem the website of a business is in violation of the act whereas a court in another jurisdiction rules the same type of website is not in violation.
Some guidance can be found in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG was established and is managed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that works together to develop Web standards that provide website accessibility to all, including those with communication, cognitive, and motor impairments.
According to the W3C, WCAG was designed “to help authors create content that is accessible to people with disabilities.” The federal government recommends that website creators look to the WCAG for guidance in developing ADA compliant websites.
WCAG has four guiding principles. All of the following principles must be met in order for users with disabilities to access the website.
Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presented in ways that users can perceive. In general, this means that the site should “ provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.”
There are numerous specific suggestions under this principle. Some examples are:
Operable: The user must be able to operate the interface and navigate through the website. Some specific suggestions for this are:
Understandable: Information and operation of the user face must be understandable. Examples include:
Robust: The “content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” Specific for this principle is that the website should be created with the ability to adapt and evolve to meet changing needs of users.
Written content on a website must be accessible for people with all types of disabilities. The structure must be such that it can be read by those who are visually impaired. Some ways to increase readability are to use headings, bulleted lists, and bolded keywords. Avoid jargon and complicated words. Use keywords for links to other websites, not a “click here” option.
Make sure the site is accessible to those with visual impairments who use screen readers. When posting videos, use subtitles, audio descriptions of the videos, and make transcripts available.
When you use an image, include a short text that describes the image or an audio description of it. Consider at least a size 12 font. Bold for emphasis is better than using italics. Make keyboard navigation available for those who cannot use a mouse.
The federal government imposes high fines for noncompliance with ADA requirements—even when the requirements for websites are vague. Many civil lawsuits are filed each year alleging a website was not ADA compliant.
Find out if you meet ADA website requirements. You can use the tool provided by accsessiBE to determine your website ADA compliance.