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What Do I Need To Know About Web Accessibility: A Business Owner’s Guide to Legal Matters


Different countries have different web accessibility standards. To make sure that you avoid incurring any accessibility violations in the U.S., here are a few things you should know about the legal requirements.

Web accessibility is turning out to be a significant challenge for U. S. businesses. When you talk about web accessibility, you’re referring to how websites, online tools, and other technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.

What exactly does “use” mean in this content? To be specific, web accessibility requires technologies to be built in a particular way such that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, interact, and even contribute to the Web. These disabilities cover all possible conditions that can affect how a person accesses the Web, including but not limited to auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, visual, and speech.

Web accessibility also provides people without disabilities an advantage. For instance, the elderly, people who are stuck with a slow internet connection or limited bandwidth, those who only use mobile phones and other small devices for Web purposes, and some with situational barriers like environmental situations or temporary injuries, should all be considered by businesses when designing their online products and systems.

There has been a spike in compliance lawsuits regarding web accessibility in recent years, proving that businesses can no longer ignore this concern. If you own or manage a business in the U.S., it is crucial that you understand what web accessibility is and the legal landscape it comes with.

Recognizing Web Accessibility Laws

Two primary laws strengthen the importance of web accessibility. First, there’s the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, America’s oldest accessibility-related legislation. Section 508 of this law requires any federal agency or department’s technologies to be accessible to those with disabilities.

Section 508 applies to all technologies that (1) will be used by federal employees and (2) that will be utilized by the public to access a government agency’s services. An expansion was later added to the provision to also include private organizations receiving federal funding, like educational institutions.

The second and more extensive U.S. law supporting web accessibility is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in several industries, including public accommodations and businesses such as restaurants, hotels, doctors’ offices, libraries, parks, pharmacies, gyms and fitness centers, retail stores, museums, theaters, daycare centers, and public transportation.

While the ADA was enacted primarily to focus on physical accessibility, it’s now being applied to online websites, too. If a website proves to be inaccessible to people with disabilities, the business could be required to overhaul the website’s design until it demonstrates otherwise. While this might sound simple, it can cost the company a significant amount in monetary damages, not including potential effects on its reputation and branding.

Understand the Differences Between the Laws

It’s vital for a business to understand the differences between these two laws, especially since they apply to different entities. As such, each law will hold its own standards for compliance.

RA 1973’s Section 508 sets up rules primarily for government entities, but it doesn’t mean private companies are out of the woods. For private businesses, the notable portion of this law is that it also applies to organizations that receive federal funding. That means that once an organization takes any amount of money from the federal government, they automatically agree to follow the standards of Section 508.

This statute of the law was highlighted a few years ago when a lawsuit was filed against government-supported Harvard University and MIT when the academic institutions failed to provide proper captioning to their online educational content.

The law also applies to contractors and third party businesses that federal organizations work with. Since they share the same network, any digital platform that their own employees interact with should also be readily accessible to the general public.

The ADA, on the other hand, is only concerned with the private sector. All employers are required by the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees, with no exceptions for people with disabilities.

The increase of digital businesses led the ADA to adjust their scope. Although the ADA was initially meant to curb physical challenges for disabled people, several consistent legal rulings requiring website compliance through the years have proven that the law also extends to online venues. In 2018 alone, over 2,000 ADA lawsuits were filed for web accessibility cases, showing clear evidence that plaintiffs are serious about the law and its online jurisdiction.

Complying with U.S. Accessibility Laws

Despite being strict on web accessibility, neither the ADA nor Section 508 actually contains specific rules for achieving web compliance. In fact, the ADA does not address websites at all in its clauses.

For Section 508, according to a ruling in early 2018, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) would be the standard by which organizations should abide by the law. The same applies to government-funded institutions and all businesses looking to work with a government agency in any capacity.

The WCAG uses four main requirements to make a list of recommendations for creating online content accessible to people with disabilities. According to the WCAG, the website should be:

  • (1) perceivable, meaning all users can see and read the site content, including the visually-impaired,
  • (2) operable, which pertains to the website’s overall navigation difficulties across multiple platforms and devices,
  • (3) understandable, meaning the website is properly organized and set in a language that most users can understand, and finally,
  • (4) robust, which means it should integrate digital tools (Assistive Technology or AT) that are commonly used by people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has declined to adopt the WCAG as an official legal standard for the ADA. Assistant Attorney General Boyd once wrote to Congress: “Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements.” Simply put, since there are no clear rules to follow, businesses have a certain freedom in figuring out how to make their online pages compliant.

A Final Word on Web Accessibility

To avoid having any issues, businesses should learn to evaluate web accessibility early in their website’s development process. The sooner you can identify any opportunities for improvement, the easier it will be to address them, especially if you’re still in the process of designing the initial webpage. It is most efficient and effective to incorporate accessibility right from the beginning to not need to go back and re-do anything.

While some accessibility aspects are quite complex and need a comprehensive evaluation to address, there are also simple solutions for other accessibility concerns. For instance, changing browser settings when checking your business website for accessibility problems is easy to do and can eliminate many potential issues in the future.

All businesses, big and small, should always consider web accessibility for all online technologies. Any perceived lack of compliance can result in financial losses, a negative public image, or difficulties securing federal grants and government contracts.

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