According to the DOJ, “Being unable to access websites puts individuals with disabilities at a great disadvantage in today’s society.” With these words in mind, the DOJ has rapidly adopted the role of web accessibility enforcer. A failure to make digital content, including websites, accessible to all individuals regardless of their emotional, physical, or mental disabilities, can result in hefty fines and class action lawsuits. In short, the DOJ is dedicated to making sure that individuals with disabilities have the same equal access to the benefits that are available online. Creating equal access is only possible if organizations a) understand the requirements of web accessibility, b) know that web accessibility is an obligation under the ADA, and c) make web accessibility a priority. The value that awaits when organizations adhere to digital accessibility laws can be measured in more than dollars and cents.
State and local governments will often post documents on their websites using Portable Document Format (PDF). But PDF documents, or those in other image based formats, are often not accessible to blind people who use screen readers and people with low vision who use text enlargement programs or different color and font settings to read computer displays.
In short, the ADA is meant to protect disabled individuals as they go about their daily lives. These regulations ensure that people with disabilities are not denied entry into the above places or denied services by a company due to their disability. It is important to note that these regulations are now applicable to services that are provided online or through other digital formats. For example, if a company accepts job applications online, then it must ensure that a person with a disability can also apply for the job online. In other words, it is illegal to have barriers on the website that would keep the disabled individual from successfully completing their application. Fortunately, the ADA guidelines help to remove barriers and ensure that the Internet remains a space that people of all backgrounds and disabilities can use.
(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites. In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website. The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues. There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.
Disabilities covered under the ADA can be physical (e.g., muscular dystrophy, dwarfism, etc.), sensory (e.g., blindness, deafness, deaf-blindness), or cognitive (e.g., Down Syndrome). In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act broadened the scope of how disability is legally defined: psychological, emotional, and physiological conditions are now included.
In some circumstances, longer and more detailed text will be necessary to convey the same meaningful information that other visitors to the website can see. For example, a map showing the locations of neighborhood branches of a city library needs a tag with much more information in text format. In that instance, where the map conveys the locations of several facilities, add a “longdesc” tag that includes a text equivalent description of each location shown on the map – e.g., “City Center Library, 433 N. Main Street, located on North Main Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue.”
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.
Develop a plan for making your existing web content accessible. Describe your plan on an accessible webpage, and encourage input on how accessibility can be improved. Let visitors to your website know about the standards or guidelines that you are using to make your website accessible. When setting timeframes for accessibility modifications to your website, make more popular webpages a priority.