The large number of people who have disabilities, coupled with the challenges that they face, is one of the reasons that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.² As its name suggests, the ADA is designed to protect individuals with disabilities in the United States. The ADA essentially makes it illegal for any government entity or business to provide goods and services to the general public without ensuring that the entities are accessible by people with disabilities. In today’s digitally driven world, many businesses fail to follow web accessibility best practices. In fact, this is why the Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) was created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). To ensure that they are implementing digital accessibility best practices, organizations are encouraged to use the WCAG 2.1 technical requirements.³
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities, using the simple steps described in this document. An agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, job announcements and application forms, if posted on an accessible website, would be available to people with disabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Under Title III, no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation. Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so they are accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. There’s a growing body of case law where the DOJ required companies to provide an ADA compliant website and levied hefty penalties when sites failed to measure up.
First, these lawsuits will be very easy for plaintiffs to work up. The plaintiffs do not need any site inspection, experts or research. They can just surf the web from the convenience of their homes or offices. Marty says the "surf by" complaints could dwarf the "drive by" ADA lawsuits that looked for missing accessible parking spaces and other readily visible shortcomings.
Most recently, however, pizza chain Domino's has been brought under suit for their website not being accessible for specialty ordering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, instead upholding the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who said the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises—which are places of public accommodation.”
You may have installed a ramp, increased the width of your door frames, or made other accommodations to ensure that your physical premises are accessible to all. The requirement for equal access used to only apply to physical locations and storefronts, but now the government is actively ensuring that the requirements for ADA accessibility include online properties such as websites and mobile apps.
I recently finished a training in ADA compliance for websites. It was illuminating and daunting, as I realizated that there’s a lot of work to be done. It also reiterated—in no uncertain terms—a gospel I’ve been preaching for several years now. Sites need to be accessible for everyone on every platform. Previously I was just focusing on responsive sites (sites that reformat for the device used, such as a phone or tablet.) Since responsive sites are de rigueur these days, I’d like to focus on your site’s accessibility…can it be accessed by people with disabilities? This includes screen readers and other technology. It’s not just a nice thing, it’s a civil law.
Courts have taken essentially the following position on the issue of whether websites are places of public accommodation: Website accessibility fulfills the spirit of the ADA by lowering the barriers for people with disabilities to participate in business and commerce. As such, commercial websites need to comply with ADA regulations. Judges have reached this conclusion in several high-profile cases, such as the National Federation of the Blind’s lawsuit against the Scribd digital library. As a result of this case, Scribd agreed to redesign its website to work with screen reader software by the end of 2017.
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Unfortunately for businesses, there is no magic bullet for website accessibility compliance and many website fixes can be cost-prohibitive for some companies. Many of these ADA website accessibility lawsuits have focused on larger businesses with perceived deeper pockets, likely because plaintiffs’ counsel believe these businesses are more willing to pay small settlements to dispose of these cases. Therefore, many smaller businesses that operate websites have opted to monitor developments until the Congress, the DoJ, or another agency provides better guidance. However, larger, more conservative businesses seeking to minimize litigation risk are often opting to retain a reputable web designer to ensure the company’s full compliance with WCAG 2.1 (or 2.0), or at least work toward that goal.
Since March 15, 2012, ADA compliance with the 2010 Standards will be required for new construction and alterations. In the period between September 15, 2010 and March 15, 2012, covered entities may choose between the 1991 Standards ADA Compliance (without the elevator exemption for Title II facilities), the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (Title II facilities only), and the 2010 Standards ADA Compliance.
The Department has assembled an official online version of the 2010 Standards to bring together the information in one easy-to-access location. It provides the scoping and technical requirements for new construction and alterations resulting from the adoption of revised 2010 Standards in the final rules for Title II (28 CFR part 35) and Title III (28 CFR part 36).
Ultimately, the DoJ’s letter has placed the burden back on Congress to legislate regarding ADA website accessibility. However, it is unlikely that it will take any action any time soon. While the DOJ’s letter is helpful for businesses, it will not stop these ADA website accessibility lawsuits. Therefore, businesses should take proactive steps toward making their websites accessible. Employers must also remember that their failure to make online job applications accessible to blind or disabled job applicants may subject them to liability under Title I of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination in hiring decisions, and which carries with it additional remedies such as compensatory damages (to pay a plaintiff for out-of-pocket expenses caused by the discrimination and compensate him/her for any emotional harm suffered), and punitive damages.