Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination, especially in the public sphere. This act is ensuring that companies will provide functionally equivalent accommodations and services to both their employees and customers with disabilities.
A report from the late 1980s showed that people with disabilities were having trouble integrating to the fullest extent into society. This prompted a conversation between activists and in the Senat. Soon enough there has been a bipartisan effort to create legislation that would cover the rights of people with accessibility difficulties while honoring the Civil Rights Act from 1964.
Adding to a general prohibition of all types of discrimination, ADA imposes that businesses and other employees need to provide reasonable accommodation to their colleagues with disabilities. The keyword is ‘’reasonable’’ and it implies that one system needs to change just enough to become fair for every party.
This brought many revolutionary changes in society, especially in urbanism. Wheelchair ramps were being added to public buildings, traffic lights started beeping when the light turned green, bathrooms became accessible, all because the Americans with Disabilities Act was put into force.
Twenty years after the Act was instituted there had been a need for reevaluation. Mainly, the internet was creating new challenges for people with disabilities, especially those with sight and sound impairments. That was when guidelines for companies were published, stressing the need for many websites to become ADA Compliant.
ADA from 1990 covered the problems that people with disabilities had while using telecommunication devices. However, it did not predict everything that the Internet brought since then. Web content accessibility is standardized in many guidelines and handbooks, and it is connected to the ADA but is not mentioned in it. When it comes to website compliance, it often falls on the court to decide which case goes against the ADA.
Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act included the title about accessibility in the place of public accommodation. One can argue that some corners of the Internet have become, although virtual, a place of public accommodation. It is a place where people communicate, do business, buy and sell, etc.
Since it is not specified in the Act how to apply it on your website, it is recommended that you follow the Web Content Accessibility Guideline to be ADA compliant. WCAG has three levels of accessibility: A, AA, and AAA.
Meeting level A is the most urgent matter for a website owner since its content is unavailable to most users with disabilities. AA level of compliance is about resolving the functionality issues and this is the standard level of accessibility for most commercial websites. AAA level is about the highest standard of accessibility – it is an equal experience for all users, regardless of their impairment.
However, WCAG is about the technical aspect of web page accessibility, it is made primarily for tech developers and web designers. If you are an owner of the website, you need to have accessible content in mind before handing it over to the designers.
So, to be precise, WCAG is not a law, but rather a guide to recommended actions. Many state and federal laws focus on accessibility and many of them drew inspiration from WCAG and ADA. By following the guideline and getting to at least AA level of accessibility you are in the clear from civil rights lawsuits.
In short, if you are an American business and not a religious institution – yes. All government institutions and all private companies that work as providers of public accommodation need to conduct their business in compliance with the ADA. This refers to their websites as well.
That being said, any website that is open to the public should be accessible to users with disabilities. Meaning, if the ADA Compliance somehow does not apply to your company, but you have a website – if it is open for any person, except those with impairments, you are open to a lawsuit.
A public accommodation is a broad term, but it refers to businesses and locations where people have access without any restrictions: hospitals, parks, parking lots, stores, sidewalks, airports, and so on. On the internet that would translate to any webpage that is open to the public, except for the web pages owned by religious institutions or private clubs.
If your business does not comply with ADA-approved strategies you are opening yourself to a possibility of a civil lawsuit. Since the start of the ADA campaign, even before the Act was put in place, many businesses have been against the changes that had to be made in order to make a business compliant. But nowadays enough time has passed and awareness has been brought to communities, that it is not that hard nor expensive to make your business open and available for everyone.
If your website is not created according to WCAG you have less chance to get sued, than if, say, you do not have a ramp at the entrance of your building. Still, it is not unseen that a company is sued for its webpage unavailability.
Ten years ago, the National Association of the Deaf sued the streaming service Netflix. It was because the ‘’Watch instantly’’ content that Netflix offered did not have adequate captioning. Before filing a civil lawsuit, the NAD sent letters and requests, and verified that the issue was not technical, but rather negligence of this entertainment mogul.
Two major shoe brands, Nike and Converse, had avoided ADA compliance by not enabling access to sight-impaired users. People who are blind or almost blind rely on a screen reading software that works only if a website is created to be compatible with it. These two websites were not compatible and millions of visually impaired Americans could not access them, so a woman from New York filed a civil lawsuit.
WCAG has four principles when creating a website – to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Understand that your content needs to be perceived by every user of your website – meaning that a sight-impaired person needs to perceive a picture.
Your content needs to be easily navigated and comprehensible. Use instructions to make sure every user has an overall equal experience that was intended when creating your website. Put yourself in the place of users with disabilities and try creating content with them in mind.
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