U.S. Proposes ADA Compliance for Public Websites

When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the public Internet didn’t exist. Over the past 23 years, making the Web accessible to people with disabilities has been a low priority for the national government and Internet companies, bolstered by the fact that court decisions refuted the notion that the ADA applied to the web. Now, the federal government, with prodding from groups representing the disabled, is acknowledging how much of everyday life the web affects. This past July, the U.S. Department of Justice proposed rules mandating that all state and local government sites be accessible to those with disabilities. After this year, the DOJ is expected to perform the exact same for all public sites, defining them as places of”public accommodation.” Formerly the term applied only to physical spaces such as retail shops, restaurants, and recreational amenities.

The ADA and the Online

In 2006 the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against Target, challenging its inaccessible site, which prevented blind men and women using assistive technology from utilizing it. The judge ruled for the plaintiffs stating that the legislation applies to sites when they act as gateways to brick-and-mortar shops. Since that time, more rulings have favored the handicapped. In 2012 the National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit against Netflix, insisting the company provide closed captioning for its Internet video readers. The federal judge in the case became the first to rule that the ADA’s accessibility requirements apply to Internet-only companies. Netflix agreed to caption all its material by 2014.

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In making public its intention to propose principles for site compliance with ADA, the DOJ acknowledged,”Sites that don’t accommodate assistive technology can create unnecessary barriers for individuals with disabilities, as buildings not designed to accommodate people with disabilities could prevent some people from entering and accessing services… Although the Department was clear that the ADA applies to sites of private entities that meet the definition of’public accommodation,’ inconsistent court decisions, differing criteria for discovering web accessibility, and repeated calls for Department action indicate residual doubt concerning the applicability of the ADA to sites of entities covered by title III. For these reasons, the Department intends to propose amendments to its regulation in order to make clear to entities covered by the ADA their duties to make their websites accessible.”

The DOJ said that the rationale for the new rules is that”Increasingly, private entities of all sorts are supplying goods and services to the general public through websites that function as places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA… On the financial front, electronic commerce… frequently offers consumers a broader selection and lower prices compared to conventional’brick-and-mortar’ storefronts, with the added advantage of not having to leave one’s home to get products and services.”

According to the National Federation of the Blind, there were 6.6 million blind people in america in 2011. While they might wish to buy goods online, attempting to add the appropriate information in the right fields in a checkout form is a frustrating and frequently impossible experience. The Gallaudet Research Institute, for deaf issues, estimates that as of 2005, there were 38.2 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the USA.

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Help Is Available

Jared Smith, Associate Director of WebAIM, a nonprofit organization that offers Internet access training and consulting in addition to WAVE, a free site analysis tool to help web developers make their websites more accessible, says that his firm has recommended to the DOJ that they use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) prepared by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Smith considers the DOJ will agree on a single set of guidelines to both government agencies and the private sector. Smith also anticipates the DOJ to give a phased implementation to allow sites to comply incrementally.

Smith claims the cost of creating a site accessible to the handicapped is a variable of understanding of accessibility. When businesses understand how to make sites accessible, it is really not that expensive or difficult. Should they move without educating themselves, it can be a painful and costly experience. He admits that creating a new site compliant is significantly easier than retrofitting an existing one. Smith recommends that Internet businesses that are trying to redesign their sites now take the chance to,”get ahead of the curve and make the sites accessible today. Everybody we’re working with is locating additional advantages to that. It’s not simply a matter of meeting prospective regulations; they’re discovering market benefits by making their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. Generally the web isn’t so friendly and those companies that implement accessibility can make millions of dollars in extra income.” Other benefits are a better standing in the disability community, cleaner code, and search engine benefits, according to Smith.

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What to Expect

Websites will probably be asked to include spoken descriptions of photographs and text boxes to the blind, and captions and transcriptions of multimedia features to 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 picture, video file, sound file, and plugin with an alt tag;
  • Complex images should be accompanied by detailed text descriptions;
  • The alt descriptions should describe the purpose of the items;
  • If a picture can also be used as a connection, be sure that the alt tag describes the picture and the link destination;
  • Add captions to videos;
  • Add sound descriptions;
  • Produce text transcripts;
  • Create a link to the movie as opposed to embedding it into webpages;
  • Data tables should have the column and row headers appropriately identified with the