When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the public Internet did not exist. Over the past 23 years, making the Internet accessible to those with disabilities has been a low priority for both the federal government and Internet businesses, bolstered by the fact that court decisions refuted the idea that the ADA applied to the Internet. Now, the federal government, with prodding from groups representing the disabled, is acknowledging how much of daily life the Internet affects. This past July, the U.S. Department of Justice proposed rules mandating that all state and local government websites be accessible to those with disabilities. Later this year, the DOJ is expected to do the same for all public websites, defining them as places of “public accommodation.” Previously the term applied only to physical spaces such as retail stores, restaurants, and recreational facilities.
The ADA and the Internet
In 2006 the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against Target, challenging its inaccessible website, which prevented blind people who use assistive technology from using it. The judge ruled for the plaintiffs stating that the law applies to websites when they act as gateways to brick-and-mortar stores. Since that time, more rulings have favored the disabled. In 2012 the National Association of the Deaf filed a suit against Netflix, insisting the company provide closed captioning for its Internet video subscribers. The federal judge in the case became the first to rule that the ADA’s accessibility requirements apply to Internet-only businesses. Netflix agreed to caption all of its content by 2014.
In making public its intention to propose rules for website compliance with ADA, the DOJ acknowledged, “Websites that do not accommodate assistive technology can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as buildings not designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities can prevent some individuals from entering and accessing services … Although the Department has been clear that the ADA applies to websites of private entities that meet the definition of ‘public accommodations,’ inconsistent court decisions, differing standards for determining web accessibility, and repeated calls for Department action indicate remaining uncertainty regarding the applicability of the ADA to websites of entities covered by title III. For these reasons, the Department plans to propose amendments to its regulation so as to make clear to entities covered by the ADA their obligations to make their websites accessible.”
The DOJ stated that the rationale for the new rules is that “Increasingly, private entities of all types are providing goods and services to the public through websites that operate as places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA … On the economic front, electronic commerce … often offers consumers a wider selection and lower prices than traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ storefronts, with the added convenience of not having to leave one’s home to obtain goods and services.”
According to the National Federation of the Blind, there were 6.6 million blind individuals in the United States in 2011. While they may wish to purchase goods online, trying to insert the appropriate information in the correct fields in a checkout form is a frustrating and often impossible experience. The Gallaudet Research Institute, for deaf issues, estimates that as of 2005, there were 38.2 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States.
Help Is Available
Jared Smith, Associate Director of WebAIM, a nonprofit organization that provides Internet accessibility training and consulting as well as WAVE, a free site evaluation tool to help web developers make their sites more accessible, says that his organization has recommended to the DOJ that they use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) prepared by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Smith believes the DOJ will agree on one set of guidelines for both government agencies and the private sector. Smith also expects the DOJ to provide a phased implementation to allow websites to comply incrementally.
Smith says the cost of making a site accessible to the disabled is a factor of knowledge about accessibility. When businesses know how to make websites accessible, it’s really not that expensive or difficult. If they proceed without educating themselves, it can be a painful and expensive experience. He admits that making a new website compliant is much easier than retrofitting an existing one. Smith recommends that Internet companies that are looking to redesign their websites now take the opportunity to, “get ahead of the curve and make the sites accessible now. Everybody we are working with is finding additional benefits to that. It’s not just a matter of meeting potential regulations; they are finding market benefits by making their sites accessible to people with disabilities. In general the web is not that friendly and those businesses that implement accessibility can earn millions of dollars in additional income.” Other advantages are a better reputation in the disability community, cleaner code, and search engine benefits, according to Smith.
What to Expect
Websites will likely be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, and captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf, among other requirements.
Unrelated to the DOJ initiative, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides the following recommendations:
- Provide every image, video file, audio file, and plug-in with an alt tag;
- Complex graphics should be accompanied by detailed text descriptions;
- The alt descriptions should describe the purpose of the objects;
- If an image is also used as a link, make sure the alt tag describes the graphic and the link destination;
- Add captions to videos;
- Add audio descriptions;
- Create text transcripts;
- Create a link to the video rather than embedding it into web pages;
- Data tables should have the column and row headers appropriately identified using the <th> tag;
- Table cells should be associated with the appropriate headers — with the id, headers, scope, or axis HTML attributes;
- Provide a link to a disability-accessible page where the plug-in can be downloaded;
- All Java applets, scripts, and plug-ins — including Acrobat PDF files and PowerPoint files — and the content within them should be accessible to assistive technologies, or else offer an alternative means of accessing equivalent content;
- When form controls are text input fields use the LABEL element.