The internet is an easy to use and beautiful place – packed to the brim with user experiences fueled by creative and imaginative solutions to deliver even the most ordinary of messages. It’s full of sites whose purpose and meaning are meant to positively affect the lives of its visitors. But for some, these experiences are a hidden nightmare that offers constant frustration and failure to their users. In short, the web in its truest form exists to more easily accomplish even your most mundane of tasks, while leaving a lasting impression.
For many with a disability the internet can often be a confusing and unforgiving place that seems to treat them as an afterthought at best. This lack of effort has led to even the largest, most well intentioned brands’, to cause constant frustration for the disabled community. While some of these issues may seem trivial to and outside observer, users with a disability often find themselves denied services that could save them money, get a job, or find basic information. These frustrations cause lasting impacts that deny those with disabilities the same quality of life that should be extended to everyone.
Regardless of the moral implications of building a site without accessibility best practices in mind, the very real danger that is becoming prevalent for firms of all sizes is revealing itself as lawsuits with very real financial ramifications. As much as I’d like to make the next heading in this article read “10 Steps to Making Your Website 100% Accessible!”, unfortunately the reality of the situation is much more complex than that. A more productive use of ink – well, pixels – would be to help lift the veil off of the convoluted legal precedents that are currently dictating the rules/regulations for the next generation of an accessible web.
To start, a quick refresher on the 3 compliance giants currently dictating internet accessibility standards in the United States.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – Title III:
“Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.”
The breakdown: Although originally written and geared towards brick and mortar shops, Title III also applies to the internet. When this bill was passed in 1990, the internet was in its infancy. Nowadays with the web being infinitely more complex, Title III remains unchanged, making it extremely difficult to gauge compliance standards without concrete rules in place for application to the web. For a full list of ADA regulations, click here.
Part of the Rehabilitation Act, section 508 outlines online accessibility standards that federal agencies, contractors and employers must meet. While it does not explicitly address colleges and universities, they would be affected if they receive any funding from the federal or state government.
The breakdown: Phew – finally some concrete rules to follow for how online experiences must be built, specifically for federal institutions or any institution receiving substantial funding from federal/state agencies. These rules set forward by section 508 give your team the minimum requirements when building (or remediating) a website for accessibility. For a full list of 508 standards, click here.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG):
These guidelines are published by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The goal of WCAG is to make web-based content more accessible to a wider variety of people. These guidelines are primarily intended for those with disabilities using assistive technologies, but also include all mediums of access (web browser, mobile phone, a screen reader etc.).
The breakdown: Section 508 is to the government, as WCAG is to the private sector. Although Section 508 is very clear on the rules an institution must follow to reach compliance, WCAG provides site builders with different levels of compliance, with the general grading curriculum being A (bare minimum), AA (near complete compliance – no user impediments while browser your site), and AAA (extremely rare, and usually built for a very specific accessibility first purpose – complete compliance, abiding by all rules/regulations for all industries). For a full list of WCAG standards, click here.
Now that the rules companies are beholden to are out of the way, we can review the different ways some institutions have broken these rules, unintentionally paving the way for new standards on online accessibility across the nation.
Conner v Parkwood (yes, the Beyoncé one)
Mary Conner, a completely blind individual living in New York, simply wanted to go online and buy tickets to one of Beyoncé’s upcoming shows from her website (managed by Parkwood Entertainment). Due to lack of alternative text on images, meaningful descriptions for form fields (think of a form for checkout), alternative text on drop-downs (think of ticket quantity picker), and an inability to use her keyboard to navigate through the site, this case had all the makings of an easy win for Conner. “There are many important pictures on beyonce.com that lack a text equivalent … As a result, Plaintiff and blind beyonce.com customers are unable to determine what is on the website, browse the website or investigate and/or make purchases,” Conner’s attorney Dan Shaked wrote in the complaint.
The breakdown: This is as cut and dry as ADA suits get. A user with a disability (in this case, complete blindness) wants to not only navigate the web from A to B to purchase a good or service, but be allowed the experience that a site provides to a visitor (not to mention one of the world’s biggest performers/musicians), only to be met with firm resistance on their website due to the technological shortcomings of the site as whole.
Robles v Dominos Pizza, LLC. (the pizza one)
The plaintiff in this case simply wanted to order a slice of pie but couldn’t complete an order on Dominos native mobile apps, or web apps, alleging Domino’s website and mobile app were inaccessible. Domino’s moved to dismiss on due process grounds, claiming it was unfair to hold them liable in the absence of specific regulations from the DOJ. The district court then dismissed, endorsing Domino’s due process claim. However when the case hit the desk of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (serving a cluster of Western states, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Mariana Islands), the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the ADA applies to websites and rejecting the due process argument because Domino’s had notice of the general requirements under ADA Title III.
The breakdown: Put simply, ADA (Title III) applies to websites even in the absence of concrete regulations set forth by the DOJ.
Scandinavian Airline System (DoT)
Department of Transportation regulations under the ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act) required airlines to bring their websites into compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA by 2016. To bring themselves up to compliance, Scandinavian Airlines decided that rather than make its primary website accessible, they’d build a secondary “assistive” website that met WCAG 2.0 guidelines. The Department of Transportation then brought an action against Scandinavian Airlines, challenging the use of a second website, ultimately resulting in action required by the airline to make its primary website accessible and to pay a fine of up to $200,000.
The breakdown: Separate is not equal. Building a secondary website just for users with disabilities still doesn’t resolve the issues with the initial site.
The above is not meant to frighten you into immediate remediation as risk of legal action – the above is simply meant to show you how treacherous this terrain is, and how easy it can be to step on a landmine even when you believe you’re following best practices to cater to users with disabilities. It is also meant to show the immense amount of consideration one must focus on when pushing forward with a new ADA/508/WCAG compliant build or remediation program.
Unfortunately, the terrain right now is groomed and managed primarily by legal precedent, rather than strict regulations by state and federal governments. The current administration – in their attempt to limit government regulations on businesses – has held the position that accessibility laws specific to the web space are on hold for the time being. As such, it is of the utmost importance to stay in-the-know of the landmark cases coming through courts nationwide now – and more importantly – the decisions coming through at the state level that will ultimately be the first line of defense for Accessibility suits.
What you can do now to protect your organization:
- Pay attention to the suits brought specifically against other firms in your industry – although most suits tackle general accessibility issues, you’ll find some focus on the fringe cases you might not have considered. The more you know…
- We’ll say this one more time: Separate is not equal. More importantly, good design is Accessible. Build with this in mind from the beginning to mitigate the risk that this could come back to haunt you later.
- Once in compliance does not mean you’re always in compliance. So, you’ve finally built your site that is completely in compliance with 508/WCAG 2.0 AA, however as content administrators start to manage content site-wide, or as integrated services change data on your site fluidly, remember you’re always at risk of falling out of compliance. Establish best practices early on for you and your team to follow as the site is updated with content to ensure you maintain compliance.
- For the majority of online Accessibility lawsuits, they reference automated testing tools as their ammunition. As such, it is a good idea to download one (WAVE, AXE, etc.) and begin testing some pages on your site. Although these tools are great for some high-level intel on how in/out of compliance you are, it is generally understood that these tools only pick up between 30-40% of issues on page. If you’re serious about compliance, consult professionals to help you put your best foot forward and become/remain accessible for users with disabilities.
In the not too distant future, the day will come when any user of the internet, with a disability or otherwise, can be busting a move to their favorite Beyoncé tune on a Spotify mix and immediately go online to purchase concert tickets in a smooth, stress-free transaction; one that all live-music fans should expect to enjoy. Until then we, as digital creators and needle movers, have the opportunity to shape the web for a new era of accessibility first experiences.