ADA Compliance: The Catch-22 of Providing Accessibility with Inaccessible Guidelines

Keyboard with F key replaced by a white stick figure in a wheelchaire on a green background.

ADA Compliance: The Catch-22 of Providing Accessibility with Inaccessible Guidelines

Imagine requiring a wheelchair ramp for each train stop in order to get to work. In addition to the physical hassle of your commute to work that will take longer than that of an able-bodied person, you may also experience rude glances or comments.

You are supposedly protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act in these spaces and have been since 1990, as they are considered places of public accommodation. And how else would you get to work?

Now imagine that you’re hard of hearing and are required to watch a movie online for class, but the movie doesn’t have captions. To top it off, you’ll be graded based on your understanding of the video.

Or maybe you’re required to file an insurance claim online, but you’re visually impaired and the site isn’t compatible with text-reading software. You could try to handle it over the phone, but the operator insists it must be filed online.

Since January 2018, federal agencies, contractors, and employers as well as agencies that receive federal funding are required to make their websites ADA accessible in accordance with Section 508. But does this apply to non-governmental businesses and universities? The short answer is yes. But here’s the longer answer:

Inaccessible Guidelines for Accessibility

In July 2010, the Obama Administration created an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) declaring the administration’s intent to formulate government specifications for ADA accessibility on the web that would apply to non-governmental agencies.

However, in December 2017, the administration announced its withdrawal of the ANPRM. This was done for a number of reasons; one being a debate on “whether promulgating regulations about the accessibility of Web information and services is necessary and appropriate.” A decision was expected in 2018, but silence from the Justice Department has continued into the Trump Administration.

While the Department of Justice continues to ruminate over whether it’s “necessary and appropriate” for businesses to provide accessible information and services, businesses are being taken to court for not doing so and being held to the expansive specifications found in Section 503. While the standards that businesses are being held to are extensive, the degree to which they are being held is variable depending on the state, court, and type of business.

Meanwhile, persons with disabilities are held responsible for the failings of the federal government. It has become up to them to educate businesses on ADA compliance.

Just as persons with disabilities are held to standards that are inaccessible to them, businesses are being held to web accessibility standards that are not clear or achievable due to financial and time constraints.

Is ADA Compliance Online “Necessary and Appropriate”?

Despite being barred access to equal opportunity, persons with disabilities are at worst, being accused of trying to make a quick buck at the expense of this Catch-22 situation. At best, they are accused of having unrealistic and lofty expectations for the internet to be accessible.

Perhaps the most entertaining of these suits was publicized in 2018 when TMZ released the headline “Playboy.com Sued by Man Alleging Website Not Accessible to the Blind”. The man claimed that he “cannot fully or equally use or enjoy the facilities, products, and services.”

How could something meant to be enjoyed visually be provided to someone with no vision? Playboy products are in fact available in Braille and audio formats through the National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped—though they cannot be provided via high-speed internet connection, yet. But this was not the accessibility issue in question, it was simply a joke made to cover it up.

Hidden in these headlines was the fact that Playboy’s website is not compatible with screen-reading software, making a blind person unable to access any text on the website at all. This particular issue is what has come up in many lawsuits for ADA accessibility, including Winn-Dixie Supermarkets, Kylie Jenner, and the Kardashians’ Dash Store.

Persons with disabilities reasonably expect to be able to gather information, purchase products, and get in contact with a business online just like an able-bodied person. In all of these suits, there was information, content, or services provided on the website that were not accessible in the physical location. Or, they were inseparably tied to the physical location in such a way that those who couldn’t access the website were missing out.

Although the internet is not a physical place that would have been taken into account with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s undeniable that access to the internet is necessary for full opportunity and enjoyment. It can be nearly impossible for an abled person to grasp the ways in which a disability can bar someone from accessing the world in the same ways. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) can be a very helpful resource in explaining the different types of disabilities and giving examples of common barriers in accessing the web.

Aside from being “necessary and appropriate,” ADA compliance online can provide many benefits to your business (aside from avoiding lawsuits, of course). Ensuring that your website is accessible to everyone regardless of any disability will expand your target audience to cover nearly 20% of the country (United States Census).

Additionally, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines overlap extensively with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy—if your website meets the accessibility guidelines, it will quite likely excel with search engine rankings.

Make your business accessible to everyone, and everyone will have the opportunity to take advantage of what you offer.

What’s the Solution?

Deciding that becoming ADA compliant online is a good decision, but the choice to put a plan in place and follow through is where many businesses are struggling. Compliance can cost thousands of dollars if not more—and even with this much of an investment, there can be no guarantee of full compliance without guiding legislation.

There are guidelines on both the Unites States Access Board and the Web Accessibility Initiative, which offer suggestions rather than legally binding guidelines regarding how to make your website ADA accessible. Meanwhile, businesses are still being held to standards for which they don’t have legislative guidelines.

In California especially, businesses large and small are targets for ADA website compliance, and the lawsuits are increasing. According to a report by the legal blog The Seyfarth ADA Title III News and Insights Blog, there have been at least 751 suits filed between January of 2015 and August of 2017, with 432 in 2017 alone.

In many of these cases, defendants have been advised to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which are part of the Web Accessibility Initiative. This Initiative is comprised of three levels, but the second one (AA) is recommended for businesses at this time.

According to ADA.gov, the best policy in moving towards ADA compliance is to establish, implement, and post your working policy online. This includes something called an “Accessibility Statement” that addresses your plan and declares an honest effort towards compliance. Don’t turn a blind eye and wait till the last minute to address these changes, but also don’t spend thousands of dollars remaking your website just yet.

Show good will towards your clients and strive to at least follow best practices, such as making your text legible to screen-reading software, but don’t give yourself a headache trying to interpret and implement obfuscated suggestions that are being presented as law.

Considerations in Design

Ultimately, ADA compliance online is no simple undertaking. Compliance with the push of the button sounds and is too good to be true, and it would serve your business well to consider investing in a quality, reputable service to put your website on the path to compliance.

The WCAG 2.0 breaks up the elements of ADA compliance online into 4 principles that we have explained below:

1. Perceivable

Although part of a good branding strategy involves consistent colors and fonts, accessibility means providing options for adjustment to accommodate individuals who may have visual disabilities. Ensuring a user has the ability to alter the way your web page appears to them may make it easier for them to access the information to which they are entitled.

Individuals using Braille display technologies or text readers will only be able to access information in a textual format. This means that even if there is text embedded in an image, these individuals will not be able to read it.

This can be avoided by providing alt attribute (alt tags) for images and videos, which is text that provides a meaningful description of the content that could stand in for the image. For example, you might place text that says “portrait of Adam West” beneath an image of Adam West to clarify what the image is to someone who cannot see it.

This also applies to any attached documents in PDF format that appear and act like an image on a computer. An HTML or RTF file should always be included, which act as text documents that can be copied and scanned easily from one location or program to another. Identifying the language that the website should be read in is also useful to ensure that text readers work appropriately.

You might also consider avoiding anything that might blink, flash, or play automatically, or if you do include it, allow it to be paused, moved, or minimized.

2. Operable

Some people are unable to use their mouse and have to rely on their keyboard entirely to navigate online. Your website should be fully navigable with the tab key, arrow keys, enter, and space bar.

Additionally, be very conscious of time limits, automatically playing videos and other multimedia, and especially anything that blinks or flashes. If you do have these elements, consider adding the ability to extend time or pause, minimize, or move them.

3. Understandable

Ensure that your text font is readable and that your content is clear and understandable. Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

While you may find your website easy to navigate, you’ll only increase your traffic and positive image by ensuring that your website is user-friendly. Automatic suggestions or alternatives when a user encounters an error can help them navigate towards the content they need and make them feel welcome.

It’s also crucial to have a consistent and organized web layout that allows for intuitive navigation of your website. If a client feels that it’s hard to find something, it’s probably too hard to find it!

4. Robust

Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools. There are WordPress themes that are guaranteed to comply with the ADA accessibility guidelines, but it is still up to you and your staff to make sure that your content and code are accessible and input all fields like alt text and captions.

Social Spice Media can help develop and manage your business’s social media presence and website for optimal accessibility. We currently have ADA compliance packages starting at $1,250.

Do you know someone who could benefit from our services? Refer them to us today! Our team is eager to connect with businesses in any industry. We serve the local needs of Ventura County and Santa Barbara as well as anywhere in the United States.