Digital Accessibility Gaining Momentum

There are more than 53 million Americans living with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re not part of this group, you may not always think of them as a large customer segment.

But it’s a fact: one in five Americans lives with a disability. Do you know if your website works for them? Would it pass accessibility compliance? Now is a pivotal time to answers these questions, because chances are that the law will require it in the near future, if it doesn’t already.

In this article, we’ll get you up to speed on the latest developments regarding digital accessibility and tell you how you can be prepared for changes to the law that seem likely in the near future.

What are the Current Digital Accessibility Laws?

The existing laws on this topic can be very confusing and the topic often gets too technical for most to follow. We’ll try to summarize it without delving too far into the nitty gritty.

It boils down to is this: currently, some organizations’ websites are required by law to be accessible and others are not — it just depends on which kind of organization.

United States federal departments and agencies, as well as some state government entities (including Minnesota) and most health care providers must be compliant with accessibility requirements. Private sector business and service providers are not technically held to this standard.

Mixed Messages and Lawsuits

While it has not been required of private sector business websites to be accessible — many have settled lawsuits in recent years. Why? Some people may say it’s to block precedent-setting court decisions.

Back in 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not include websites as long as an equivalent way to access goods and services is provided. This frustrated many accessibility advocates and delayed progress on digital accessibility for all.

In June 2015, however, DOJ seemed to reverse course. It indirectly stated in a case brief that there is a “pre-existing” obligation to make websites accessible.

Then, in March of this year a California Court ruled that a private sector retailer’s website violated the ADA by being inaccessible. This was a first.

Lawsuits affecting private sector businesses (which falls under Title III) have subsequently jumped, up 63% in the first half of this year when compared to the first half of 2015.

New Requirements for Health Care Providers

In July of this year, a rule was put into effect as part of the Affordable Care Act requiring any health care provider receiving federal funding through Medicare to be digitally accessible. This has a broad impact since most health care providers do receive Medicare funding, and adds evidence that digital accessibility has gained traction.

Writing on the Wall: Revisions to ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a 1990 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including all public and private places that are open to the general public.

The law (again – Title III, to be exact) requires “public accommodations” to access goods and services. Think of things like parking, ramps, signage, expanded doorway sizes, larger bathroom stalls, etc. When it comes to websites rather than physical spaces, it has been left unclear. This is why litigation – and the ADA’s interpretation in the courts – has been the main indicator to watch.

Then suddenly in May of this year, the DOJ opened a comment period to revise the ADA regulations of Title II (State & Local Governments). This is a big deal because those revisions are likely to include digital accessibility – and are likely to ripple to Title III (all public spaces).

Once that happens, the law will no longer be murky. It will require that access to goods and services be provided to people with disabilities – or you will be vulnerable to litigation.

Digital Accessibility’s Impact on Society

The only way to fully appreciate the importance of this issue is to watch people with disabilities navigate the web. I’ve fortunately had the opportunity to do so many times and encourage you to find such an opportunity.

Obviously, making your site available to a large customer segment is good for business. But, more importantly, we live in a world in which vital activities are mainly done online. Things like applying for jobs, signing up for benefits, accessing bank accounts, ordering groceries, and buying airline tickets.

It’s simply unacceptable for a portion of the population to not have access to these day-to-day tasks. Furthermore, I believe it’s unacceptable to offer a second-rate alternative. Digital accessibility is achievable and can improve your website for everyone, including people without disabilities. It’s a no-brainer, but it needs dedicated champions in every organization.

What You Can Do to Prepare

In order to understand the potential impact of an ADA digital accessibility law, let’s consider the impact of ADA on physical spaces.

Organizations that have done nothing to address physical accessibility problems are most vulnerable to lawsuits. But those making readily achievable updates can show progress and intent toward becoming compliant, minimizing the risk of litigation. We expect the same will be true with digital.

The first step we recommend is to commission an accessibility evaluation of your website by a 3rd party. Once you know your digital accessibility status and the extent of the updates that are needed, you can formulate a plan.

We offer such evaluations at Crux Collaborative. We combine automated testing tools with human insights, resulting in a report with accessibility issues itemized along with the severity and screen shots. This can be a helpful tool to circulate and educate decision makers in your organization.

It’s also important to understand that compliance with accessibility guidelines is not a one-time event. As your site evolves over time and content is updated, poor practices can be re-introduced by content editors, developers, and others.

Organizations like ours can help you to become compliant, but expect to train your staff on best practices and plan to re-evaluate your website on a regular basis to ensure ongoing compliance.

If you want to know about our expertise with digital accessibility, contact us to start the conversation.

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