United States Web Accessibility Laws

United States Web Accessibility Laws

Last Edited July 9, 2019 by Garenne Bigby in Accessibility Testing

The internet enables us to access information, financial institutions, stores, education, and much more in the form of audio, text, video, and other formats. It’s an incredibly useful tool that many of us rely on in our day-to-day lives, whether we’re using it personally or professionally. We depend on the Internet to give us virtually infinite amounts of data — allowing us to make decisions, collaborate together, and stay in touch with those who are important to us. In a sense, the Internet acts as a portal to all of the knowledge we, as a collective society, have. But often, the Internet remains restricted or dependent on assistive technologies for persons with disabilities to take advantage of it. This is why it’s essential for businesses to ensure web accessibility for everyone, including those with disabilities. 

 

What is Web Accessibility?

 

The term “accessibility” refers to the ability to access and utilize something, such as the Internet, transportation, etc. When we speak of web accessibility, we’re referring to the ability to ensure everyone is able to perceive, navigate, understand, and interact with the web, as well as contribute to the web as needed. Web accessibility is vital to allow those with disabilities, as well as those who are elderly or experiencing temporary or conditional disabilities, are able to have the same access as everyone else. Fortunately, there are standards in place to help the world understand universally accepted protocols for web accessibility. These standards are known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The guidelines are known as WCAG. As of 2018, the updated version of these guidelines is 2.1. 

 

About W3C and WCAG 2.1 Guidelines 

 

The W3C is an initiative wherein people are brought together from the government, research labs, industry/disability organizations, and much more around the world. These ones work together to develop guidelines and resources that help make the web accessible for all individuals, including those with disabilities of any sort. The WCAG 2.1 guidelines offer specific ways to make web content accessible. Web content refers to any information within a web page or application, including natural information such as sounds, text, and images, as well as code or markup that defines the structure, presentation, and other factors of the page or application. When you’re looking to ensure web accessibility, the WCAG 2.1 guidelines are essentially the best place to start. They’re particularly helpful for: 

  • Web content developers or site designers

  • Web accessibility evaluation tool developers 

  • Web authoring tool developers

  • Anyone who wants to ensure web accessibility 

WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 (the latest version) are stable technical standards for your reference. They have 12-12 guidelines that are categorized under 4 principles: operable, perceivable, robust, and understandable. Each guideline offers testable success criteria at three separate levels: A, AA, and AAA. 

 

What Types of Disability Need to be Considered?  

When you’re aiming to achieve a greater level of web accessibility, you must consider all types of disabilities and the barriers those with disabilities face when accessing the Internet. Disability, in general, means a situation or condition that limits your ability to do something that you could otherwise do if you weren’t in that particular condition. A disability makes it harder for the individual who has the condition to interact fully with society, as a whole, around them or perform certain activities. There are three modes of disability to be aware of:  

  1. Permanent disability: This refers to an individual who is completely disabled, whether it’s cognitive, physical or something else. For example, blind or deaf. 

  2. Temporary disability: This refers to an individual who is experiencing a physical or mental disability that hinders their capabilities short-term. For example, a broken arm. 

  3. Conditional or situational disability: This refers to an individual who is unable to perform the same activities as normal for situational reasons. For example, a slow Internet connection. 

Every web developer and/or site author should aim to ensure web accessibility meets the needs of all individuals, regardless of whether they have a permanent, temporary, or situational disability. 

 

What Makes Web Accessibility Important?  

The web is an important resource for almost everyone — allowing us to complete our education, find employment, gain access to medical information, and much more. In an effort to provide equal access and equal opportunity to those with disabilities, the web must be accessible — allowing those with disabilities to participate actively in society without being excluded from such a huge aspect of life. In addition, an accessible website or application is important to ensure you’re not excluding a huge aspect of the population. There are many business benefits to web accessibility: 


1. Prevent any sort of legal complications and/or lawsuits

You may not be intentionally trying to discriminate against those with disabilities, but if you’re not making sure your website and/or application is accessible to them, it’s going to be considered discrimination. This is why it’s so important to understand the web accessibility laws that your industry and/or state requires you to adhere to. You certainly don’t want legal complications and/or lawsuits taking you down. The reputational damage from something like that would be astronomical. 



2. Improve your search engine rankings 

Many people don’t realize that a lot of the web accessibility standards are also the same as the most common best practices relating to search engine optimization. When you take the steps to incorporate accessibility features into your website or application, your search engine rankings will improve. This is because you’re making changes that improve a bots ability to crawl and index your website, and bots are similar to blind individuals because they’re not able to see the content on your website, they rely on things like alt text for images. 



3. Boost your reputation with the public 

In today’s day and age where everyone posts on social media about positive and negative experiences with businesses, it’s important to make sure you’re perceived well with the general public. An accessible website or application can make a world of difference when it comes to demonstrating social responsibility. You will find that word spreads fast when you’re an inclusive business that strives to meet the needs of all of your potential customers. The opposite is also true. If you’re not an inclusive business, people will tell others, and you will lose out on business opportunities. 



4. Enhance usability for everyone who visits your website and/or application

Implementing web accessibility best practices makes your website more user-friendly for everyone who visits your website. Many of the changes involved to achieve accessibility make your website easier to navigate and your content easier to read, regardless of device or any other factor. You’ll be able to broaden your market penetration as more people who visit your website will have a positive experience. This means you’re more likely to convert prospects into customers. 

 

An In-Depth Look at the Accessibility Laws in the United States

Most countries provide a range of laws to protect the civil rights of all individuals, including those with disabilities. These laws extend to parks, businesses, homes, educational facilities, and businesses. However, there are no universal laws extending to web accessibility. In fact, it can be difficult to determine what does and doesn’t apply to you when it comes to accessibility laws relating to the web. Now that we’ve covered what web accessibility is, why it’s important, and the benefits of ensuring web accessibility, let’s take an in-depth look at the accessibility laws in the United States. 

 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and 508) 

First and foremost, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This was the first major legislative effort designed to create an equal playing field for those with disabilities of any type. This act recognizes the significant barriers many individuals with disabilities face in terms of finding employment, living independently, and being included in society. Since it was enacted, it’s been amended twice — 1993 and 1998 — providing a range of services for those with cognitive or physical disabilities. 

Two sections of the legislation impact web accessibility: Section 504 and 508. Essentially, Section 504 offers the context behind the law while Section 508 offers the direction to follow. Let’s take a look at both Section 504 and Section 508 in more detail. 


Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was the first civil rights legislation in the US designed to ensure those with disabilities couldn’t be discriminated against based on their condition. Employers and organizations that receive any type of federal financial assistance must abide by the nondiscrimination requirements of this law. This means those with disabilities cannot be denied the benefits of, be debarred from partaking in or be exposed to any sort of discrimination under any activity or program that obtains state financial assistance. The following organizations fall under this category: 

  • Postsecondary entities (universities, colleges, etc.) 

  • Federally-funded projects

  • K-12 schools

  • Government agencies 

This was designed to prevent all forms of discrimination against those with disabilities, whether it’s intentional or not. 

 

Does Section 504 Relate to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? 

The ADA extended many of the regulations found within Section 504 to the public sector. Ultimately, according to the ADA, nothing within the law overrides or cancels anything in Section 504. This means that those who must comply with the ADA will face all of the same requirements found in Section 504.  

 

Section 508 

Section 508 prevents the federal government from leveraging and/or procuring electronic and information technology goods and services that are not designed to be accessible for people with disabilities. This also extends to any services for web design. The Access Board was brought in to create enforceable standards that outline what “accessible” electronic and information technology products refer to. In December 2000, The Access Board, alongside the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee, published the first set of accessibility standards for electronic and information technology. Section 508 has been, overall, incredibly influential for the following reasons:  

  • It’s the first accessibility standard of its kind for the Internet: Although the WCAG existed before Section 508, it’s the first standard of its kind, as opposed to guidelines, relating to the Internet and web accessibility in the US.

  • It’s the only binding, enforceable standards that must be followed: The WCAG did not offer binding, enforceable standards the way Section 508 does — making compliance mandatory as opposed to optional. 

  • It’s become law for many state governments to comply: Any state that receives federal funding must meet all of the conditions of Section 508 within their state entities. Many states require Section 508 to be state law. 

  • It’s made more businesses ensure web accessibility to meet client demands: Businesses who serve and/or supply electronic and information technology goods and/or services to the federal government must ensure web accessibility. 

A complete overview of Section 508 standards that relate to web accessibility can be found in this checklist. 

 

How is Section 508 Enforced?  

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights enforces Section 508. Those who have complaints, whether it’s an employee, student or member of the public with a disability, are able to file a private lawsuit through a federal district court. They can also file an administrative complaint with the agency they believe is discriminating against them or a complaint to the US Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights themselves. The Attorney General evaluates whether or not the government is following the standards set out by Section 508 — bringing updates every two years to the President and Congress. 

 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was first legislated in 1975. The federal law was amended back in 1997. It was designed to ensure all schools meet the educational needs of students who have a disability — offering free appropriate public education as needed to those who meet the eligibility requirements. IDEA sets out regulations, funding, and assistance to local and state agencies to ensure they have the right measures in place to meet the needs of students with disabilities. 

In addition, there are grants and activities available through IDEA — covering a range of needs — from intervention to research to personnel development and everything in between. One of the many ways a free appropriate public education is offered to those with disabilities includes an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This is a documented yearly process that helps students receive a more specialized level of assistance from administrators, educators, and other individuals who work together to create goals, then ensure the success of those goals for that particular student. 

Parents of students with disabilities also have rights and protections, commonly referred to as procedural safeguards, under IDEA. This includes but is not limited to the right to participate in any meetings regarding assistance and/or services that are provided to their child, as well as the right to expect their child’s information will remain confidential. For children with disabilities to qualify under IDEA, they must fall into one of the following 13 disability categories: 

  • Deafness

  • Autism

  • Deafblindness

  • Hearing impairment

  • Intellectual disability

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Speech or language impairment

  • Visual impairment

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Learning disability, such as dyslexia

  • Other health impairment, such as ADHD 

Although eligibility depends on the student having a disability as listed above, they must also demonstrate a need for special education that results from their disability. If they’re able to make adequate progress in school without special education, they may not qualify. So how do you start the process of getting special education for a child with a disability? The first step would be an appointment with their medical practitioner to request an evaluation for special education. 

If the school suspects a disability before the parent, they may request to conduct an evaluation to determine whether or not the student has a disability and what services would increase their chances of success at school. An eligibility meeting will be held upon completion of the evaluation, in order to determine if the student qualifies as requiring special education. Upon qualification, the school will determine an individualized education program (IEP) for that particular student. 

 

How Does IDEA Impact the Web? 

The Internet is commonly used in school — allowing children to research information, collaborate on projects and/or assignments, and overall, helping them meet their educational needs. The web is important for all pre-K-12 school systems. In most states, students are required to learn how to leverage the Internet, to some degree, as part of the curriculum. In addition, many teachers use the Internet to offer a range of materials to students — from science to history to math — students depend on the Internet to complete their work in various subjects. Even tests can be administered online nowadays. 

IDEA is incredibly important as it makes sure those with disabilities are still able to participate properly throughout their experience at school. Ultimately, schools need to ensure they’re purchasing the right products and/or services for students with disabilities — keeping accessibility in mind at all times to ensure inclusivity. An individualized education plan that incorporates accessibility can make a world of difference in a student with disability ability to succeed. 

 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 sets out to keep individuals with disabilities from facing discrimination in all areas of life, including transportation, jobs, schools, and public or private facilities that are open to the general public. This civil rights legislation aims to ensure those with disabilities are still able to experience life with equal opportunities in terms of the activities they can participate in and the services and/or goods they can procure. The ADA doesn’t specifically address web accessibility, but there are two important sections that apply to web accessibility to some degree: 

  • Title II: Stating that any and all communications with those who have a disability must be effective to the same degree as communications with those who do not have a disability. 

  • Title III: Stating that all public accommodations must remove barriers that would impede the abilities of persons with disabilities wherever possible. 

When a situation arises, the law is open to interpretation. However, judges and lawyers can decide that the ADA does relate to web and online content in a specific case. It’s important to ensure all web or online content does meet web accessibility standards, and in turn, is compliant with the sections of ADA that may or may not be interpreted to relate to web accessibility. 

 

Does ADA Compliance Improve SEO Efforts? 

In today’s digital age where we spend a lot of time online, it’s more important than ever before to make sure you’re ranking high on the search engines. In fact, organic search is a huge part of any given website’s performance. Essentially, your search ranking makes a world of difference when it comes to determining the amount of traffic that comes to your website, and in turn, the number of prospects that convert into paying customers. 

Google and other search engines have learned how to determine whether or not a website offers a favorable user experience. Those that are found to offer a favorable user experience will rank much higher than those that don’t. Although many people want to rank higher in the search engines, they overlook the importance of user experience. Of course, user experience needs to extend to all individuals who visit your website, including those with disabilities. 

For most businesses, SEO is a crucial factor in their marketing efforts — ensuring they’re found when people search for specific words or phrases. When you’re looking to boost your search rankings, it’s important to make sure you’re complying with ADA and other applicable regulations relating to web accessibility. Why? Because search engines act very similarly to those with disabilities. 

They rely on more than the way your website looks. They need the proper code, markup, structure, and other factors. WCAG requires accessibility to screen readers, which act very similarly to crawlers that go through your website to assess indexability and other factors. If your website meets the latest WCAG guidelines, you’re able to rest assured knowing search engines will be able to crawl through the pages efficiently. 

If you haven’t taken the important steps of ensuring you have the right meta tags, alt image text, video transcripts, and other features throughout your website, it’s time to do a thorough review. You’ll be able to rest assured knowing those with disabilities are able to leverage your website while improving your own search rankings. 


What Happens If Your Website or Application Isn’t ADA-Compliant? 

When the ADA was initially written, technology wasn’t as widely utilized as it is nowadays. This is why the text doesn’t mention websites specifically, however, it’s a well-known fact that virtually every business has a website or application. It’s vital to ensure those websites or applications are grade A compliant, in order to prevent any sort of legal complications. There has been a range of well-known brands that have experienced legal complications due to inaccessible products and/or services, including but not limited to: 

  • Kylie Jenner

  • Brooks Brothers

  • Footlocker

The guidelines state that any page that’s been updated after January 2018 must be compliant. If you have updated your website since this time or you currently have an active website that hasn’t been updated, you may be subject to legal complications if you haven’t taken the steps necessary to ensure all individuals, including those with disabilities, can operate your website. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was put into action to allow anyone to enter any communications business and compete in any market. This extends to broadcast services, cable programming, video services, and telephone services, regardless of whether they’re local or long distance. This legislation strives to promote the availability of telecommunications services and/or equipment to all individuals, including those who are often underserved, such as those with disabilities. Two main sections of this act specifically address disabilities. 

 

How Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Addresses Disabilities  

Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that all manufacturers and providers of telecommunications equipment must ensure the equipment and/or services they create or sell are designed to be accessible for individuals who have disabilities of any sort, as long as this is reasonable to achieve. This was the first time any product design law specifically addressed the need for equipment and/or services that are usable for those with disabilities. 

 

How Section 713 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Addresses Disabilities 

Section 713 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that all video services must be made accessible to anyone who suffers from any sort of hearing and/or speech disabilities, whether they are partially or completely void of the ability to see or hear. The FCC reviews the level at which any given video programming is closed captioned — ensuring there is a timetable in place for closed captioning requirements to be met. The FCC does reserve the right to exempt programming wherein closed captioning is thought to be economically burdensome.

 

What Other Provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Impact Those with Disabilities? 

Although Section 255 and Section 713 primarily address disabilities, there are other provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that promote equal access to telecommunications for all individuals, including those with disabilities. 

 

Section 706

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to help encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications to all individuals throughout the country with elementary and secondary schools/classrooms being a primary focus of the provision. The FCC must assess the level at which advanced telecommunications are already made available, then try to boost deployment through the removal of any barriers that are preventing investments into infrastructure. Naturally, this offers huge benefits to those with disabilities as they’re able to improve learning through the use of accessible products and/or services.

 

Section 254

Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC, as well as a federal-state joint board, to collaboratively define what services should be made available on a universal level, then take actions as required to further the universal service principles. This provision also revises the definition of universal services to include libraries, schools, and healthcare organizations. According to this provision, telecommunications companies are required to provide services at affordable rates to these public institutions, as long as requested. The FCC decides what telecommunications services should be covered, what an affordable rate looks like, and to what degree discounts should be available to these public institutions. 

 

Section 256 

Section 256(b)(2)(B) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to establish procedures for overseeing any sort of network planning in terms of telecommunications. The provision also states that the FCC may participate with the industry, in general, to create standards for interconnectivity. The standards created can greatly help ensure access to telecommunications networks for all individuals throughout the country, including those with disabilities of any sort. 

 

Section 251

Section 251 (a)(2) states that all telecommunications carriers are not allowed to install any networking equipment — extending to functions, features or capabilities — that don’t comply with the standards and guidelines founded under Section 255 and 256. 

 

How Does the FCC Develop Regulations? 

If you’ve ever wanted to be involved with rulemaking in regards to telecommunications products and/or services, you’re in luck. The FCC actually uses what’s known as a “notice and comment” process wherein the public is able to participate. Typically, the FCC will issue one of two types of public documents before implementing a section of a law. These documents are known as a “notice of inquiry” and a “notice of proposed rulemaking.” As a member of the public, you’re able to review these documents and address the issues raised in them. There will be a deadline that states when they will finish accepting comments and/or reply comments. 

This means that as long as you take action within the required deadline, you’re able to give them feedback. The commissioners and their staff members will review all of the comments and replies to comments before they make a final decision regarding the section of a law. Prior to participating, we recommend reading the full text of the act. You can also review any notice of inquiry or notice of proposed rulemaking on their website or call 1-888-225-5322 (voice) or 1-888-835-5322 (TTY) to get information/to obtain them. You will find instructions on how to submit a comment or reply to a comment within any given notice of inquiry or notice of proposed rulemaking. 

 

Why Do Businesses Need to Understand the United States Accessibility Laws Fully? 

We’re seeing a rise in the number of seniors throughout our population, and with that, we’re seeing a rise in the number of individuals living with impairments, as well as a rise in the number of individuals who don’t use the Internet as effectively as those who are younger and more technically-inclined. Aside from the elderly,  a huge portion of the population — approximately 1 in 5 — lives with some type of impairment. 1 in 10 lives with a severe disability. Today, businesses can’t afford to ignore the importance of having an accessible website or application.  

In fact, they need to ensure web accessibility to avoid legal complications. One mistake too many business owners make is assuming all of their potential customers understand technology. But despite the advancements we’ve seen over the past decade or so, not everyone is able to leverage online services the same way. If your website isn’t accessible to the elderly or people with disabilities, you’re missing the chance to impress a huge potential customer base. 

We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of lawsuits occurring as a result of web application and/or service providers not making their products and/or services accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. The laws above are incredibly important to understand and abide by. The Internet is such a valuable resource that we all depend on, including individuals with disabilities — offering access to information, financial institutions, and much more.  

However, the Internet has been known for having barriers that keep those with disabilities from being able to access what they need. Throughout history, there have been many laws protecting the civil rights of persons with disabilities when it comes to educational facilities, homes, jobs, and other important factors. But website accessibility has been overlooked until recently. While web accessibility enforcement hasn’t been taken very seriously in the past, we expect it’ll be taken more seriously in the future. 

All businesses, regardless of type or size, need to get ahead of the times and make sure they’re providing accessible web services and/or applications that everyone can use. It’s all about following the right standards, taking the appropriate steps, and overall, making a commitment to being inclusive to the needs of all individuals rather than a portion of individuals in our society. If you haven’t started taking steps to ensure web accessibility, it’s time to start before you face legal complications as a result of negligence. 

 

How to Maintain Compliance with United States Accessibility Laws

As web accessibility becomes a more widely known concept and accessibility laws start being taken more seriously, it’s important to make sure you’re maintaining compliance with the various accessibility laws that apply to your business. Seyfarth Shaw, an international law firm, declared that ADA Title III lawsuits have increased significantly over the years. In fact, it’s gone from 4,789 in 2015 to 10,163 in 2018. In 2018 alone, there were almost 2,000 lawsuits related to web accessibility filed in the courts. Before 2015, there were almost none. The chance of being sued for having an inaccessible website or application has increased drastically, so let’s look at how to maintain compliance with the laws listed above. Here are a few helpful tips to get you on the path towards web accessibility: 


1. Make Sure Your Website is Keyboard Friendly

This is one of the most important steps you can take towards web accessibility. Make sure users are able to navigate through your website without the use of a mouse. Many assistive technologies rely on keyboard-only navigation, so it’s important to ensure any given person can fully use your website — accessing all of the links, pages, and more — with their keyboard.

 
2. Add Alt Text to All Images  

Every single image on your website should have alt text. This is fairly easy to add, but it’s so important as it acts as a replacement in the event of an image failing to load. It also allows screen readers to understand what the photo is showing, which means those with visual disabilities are still able to make sense of the content shown on your website. 


3. Pay Attention to Your Forms

Forms can be incredibly useful for gathering information from visitors, but it’s important to make sure each field is very clearly labeled with the labels placed adjacent to the respective fields. Those who use screen readers will greatly benefit from this as the screen reader will be able to read out the field properly. 

 

4. Avoid Automatic Navigation or Media  

Most people can agree: automatic navigation or media can be quite frustrating for the average user. It’s even more frustrating for users with disabilities as they may have trouble figuring out how to shut it off or feel frightened by the sudden loud noises. Make sure all elements, such as videos or revolving text, start with the user prompting them. 

 

Conclusion 

The WCAG 2.1 guidelines are a great place to start when it comes to web accessibility. When you make sure your website is welcoming and usable for all individuals, you’re able to be perceived as an inclusive company while avoiding any sort of legal complications as a result of non-compliance. Not only will having an accessible website or application benefit persons with disabilities, but it’ll also benefit you in terms of increased traffic, and ultimately, a greater conversion rate. 

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.

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