Leading web developers have been pioneering accessibility and publishing standards since 1994. In 1999, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In essence, the people who determine how the internet is written came together to advise web developers on how to make websites accessible not only to people with disabilities, but to all web users, including those with highly limited devices.
Peter is Founder and CEO of Blue Interactive Agency, a full service digital marketing agency. With a passion for online marketing, Peter enjoys analyzing digital strategies and offering his unique view on how effective they are. Having a track record of successfully commercializing digital properties, Peter is always looking for the next challenge to help a company succeed online. In his spare time, Peter maintains a personal blog which focuses on his gastronome adventures.
Last spring, I was approached by my local chapter of the Legal Marketing Association about presenting alongside attorney Dana Hoffman of Young Moore on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its application to law firm website design. The presentation was fun and informative, and I was honored shortly thereafter the opportunity to expand the focus for an audience of litigators at the 2017 Defense Research Institute’s Retail and Hospitality Conference in Chicago. I’ll be presenting on this topic this Friday alongside Amy Richardson of Harris Wiltshire & Grannis. Amy has worked on both the litigation and government enforcement sides of this issue and we’re both looking forward to talking with attorneys representing clients across the business spectrum on this interesting topic.
The attorneys' fees provision of Title III does provide incentive for lawyers to specialize and engage in serial ADA litigation, but a disabled plaintiff does not obtain financial reward from attorneys' fees unless they act as their own attorney, or as mentioned above, a disabled plaintiff resides in a state that provides for minimum compensation and court fees in lawsuits. Moreover, there may be a benefit to these "private attorneys general" who identify and compel the correction of illegal conditions: they may increase the number of public accommodations accessible to persons with disabilities. "Civil rights law depends heavily on private enforcement. Moreover, the inclusion of penalties and damages is the driving force that facilitates voluntary compliance with the ADA." Courts have noted:
Blind people, those with low vision, and people with other disabilities that affect their ability to read a computer display often use different technologies so they can access the information displayed on a webpage. Two commonly used technologies are screen readers and refreshable Braille displays. As discussed above, a screen reader is a computer program that speaks the text that appears on the computer display, beginning in the top-left corner. A refreshable Braille display is an electronic device that translates text into Braille characters that can be read by touch. These assistive technologies read text. They cannot translate images into speech or Braille, even if words appear in the images. For example, these technologies cannot interpret a photograph of a stop sign, even if the word “stop” appears in the image.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities, using the simple steps described in this document. An agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, job announcements and application forms, if posted on an accessible website, would be available to people with disabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
First, these lawsuits will be very easy for plaintiffs to work up. The plaintiffs do not need any site inspection, experts or research. They can just surf the web from the convenience of their homes or offices. Marty says the "surf by" complaints could dwarf the "drive by" ADA lawsuits that looked for missing accessible parking spaces and other readily visible shortcomings.
Most web designers offer a wide variety of services to make your website aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. Modern web design must be mobile-friendly and scalable, capable of expanding to include a blog, social media sites, and even video streaming; web designers are experts at integrating various web technologies. They can build the site, add functionality, test it, launch it on a live server, and track and maintain its performance.
The ADA has been criticized on the grounds that it decreases the employment rate for people with disabilities and raises the cost of doing business for employers, in large part due to the additional legal risks, which employers avoid by quietly avoiding hiring people with disabilities. Some researchers believe that the law has been ineffectual. Between 1991 (after the enactment of the ADA) and 1995, the employment rate of men with disabilities dropped by 7.8% regardless of age, educational level, or type of disability, with the most affected being young, less-educated and mentally disabled men. Despite the many criticisms, a causal link between the ADA and declining disabled employment over much of the 1990s has not been definitively identified.
The ADA statute identifies who is a person with a disability, who has obligations under the ADA, general non-discrimination requirements and other basic obligations. It delegates fleshing out those obligations to federal agencies. The agencies issue regulations and design standards. The regulations have the details on the rights of people with disabilities and responsibilities of employers, state and local governments, transportation providers, businesses and non-profit organizations. The design standards specify how many entrances need to be accessible, how many toilet rooms and the design for those elements. To know what the ADA requires, you need to read the law, regulations and design standards.
The Department of Justice may file lawsuits in federal court to enforce the ADA Compliance, and courts may order compensatory damages and back pay to remedy discrimination if the Department prevails. Under title III, the Department of Justice may also obtain civil penalties of up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for any subsequent violation of ADA Compliance.
I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We've all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we've been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred.... Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.
Part of Title I was found unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court as it pertains to states in the case of Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett as violating the sovereign immunity rights of the several states as specified by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court determined that state employees cannot sue their employer for violating ADA rules. State employees can, however, file complaints at the Department of Justice or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who can sue on their behalf.
"I’m a couple years away from retirement and have a very limited budget and after talking to some other web developers through thumbtack I quickly realized I was not going to be able to afford a website built by anyone but myself. Then I got a response from Jean Johson of B’yond Media telling I was chosen to get my free website. Crazy, is all I can think of. Why me, and is this too good to be true. But after speaking with Jean for awhile in the phone I soon realized that I was really going to be getting an awesome e-commerce site for free. I’m over the moon and have already started gather information for them for my site. They were a God send. I can’t think of anyone I would rather do my website free or not than Byond Media and Jean Johson as my project manager. You must give them a try. I’m sure you will be as happy as I am."
One of the first major ADA lawsuits, Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects and Engineers (PVA 1996) was focused on the wheelchair accessibility of a stadium project that was still in the design phase, MCI Center (now known as Capital One Arena) in Washington, D.C. Previous to this case, which was filed only five years after the ADA was passed, the DOJ was unable or unwilling to provide clarification on the distribution requirements for accessible wheelchair locations in large assembly spaces. While Section 4.33.3 of ADAAG makes reference to lines of sight, no specific reference is made to seeing over standing patrons. The MCI Center, designed by Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers, was designed with too few wheelchair and companion seats, and the ones that were included did not provide sight lines that would enable the wheelchair user to view the playing area while the spectators in front of them were standing. This case and another related case established precedent on seat distribution and sight lines issues for ADA enforcement that continues to present day.
People with disabilities are all around us. They live in every country and often experience life in a very different manner than those individuals who don’t have emotional, mental, or physical disabilities. In fact, 15 percent of the global population is classified as disabled. Of this 15 percent, an estimated 190 million people experience significant disabilities.¹
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law July 26, 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination of people with disabilities and guarantees the same opportunities as everyone else. These opportunities include employment possibilities, purchasing of goods and services and the ability to participate in State and local government programs.
The idea of federal legislation enhancing and extending civil rights legislation to millions of Americans with disabilities gained bipartisan support in late 1988 and early 1989. In early 1989 both Congress and the newly-inaugurated Bush White House worked separately, then jointly, to write legislation capable of expanding civil rights without imposing undue harm or costs on those already in compliance with existing rules and laws.
While the influx of the dot.com world eliminated the need for brick-and-mortar locations for all stores (think eBay or Amazon), all of the above categories typically had a headquarters, if not multiple locations where one could visit and interact. This would ensure a unique experience, often depending on the individual needs of the visitor. For instance, when visiting a municipal building or institute of learning, a variety of methods are available to get to higher floors (stairs, elevators, ramps and escalators).
The statement that “noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA” is new and significant. It is a recognition that a website may be accessible and usable by the blind without being fully compliant with the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1. The statement confirms what some courts have said so far: That the operative legal question in a website accessibility lawsuit is not whether the website conforms with WCAG, but whether persons with disabilities are able to access to a public accommodation’s goods, services, and benefits through the website, or some alternative fashion.
In response to the members’ concern about the proliferation of website litigation lawsuits, DOJ said: “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts.” DOJ is essentially putting the ball back in the Congressional court, where little is likely to happen.
Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.
Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.
State and local governments will often post documents on their websites using Portable Document Format (PDF). But PDF documents, or those in other image based formats, are often not accessible to blind people who use screen readers and people with low vision who use text enlargement programs or different color and font settings to read computer displays.
The landscape of disabled access litigation related to online services has significantly changed and expanded over the past decade. Initially, the internet was an area of little concern as courts uniformly held that the ADA applied to "brick and mortar" facilities, not to cyberspace. This has changed and online accessibility is presently, and will continue to be, an area of significant investigation and litigation.
Permanent injunction requiring a change in corporate polices to cause Defendant’s website to become, and remain, accessible Noted was that “The ADA expressly contemplates the type of injunctive relief that the Plaintiffs seek in this action.” The Plaintiff’s lawyers stated that “Because Defendant’s Website has never been accessible and because Defendant does not have, and has never had, a corporate policy that is reasonably calculated to cause its Website to become and remain accessible”. Therefor the Court should require that the Plaintiff accept who the Defendant will use to “assist it in improving the accessibility of its Website”, “ensure that all employees involved in website development and content development be given training”, “Consultant to perform an automated accessibility audit on a periodic basis to evaluate if the Defendant’s Website continues to comply”, “Consultant to perform end-user accessibility/usability testing on a periodic basis”, “Consultant to create an accessibility policy”. Although the Lawyers asked the Court for the above, and it would be extremely time consuming and expensive for the Defendant, the very last part of the Complaint was what the Lawyers were after. Here is what the Lawyers asked the Court for:
Access Now v. Southwest Airlines was a case where the District Court decided that the website of Southwest Airlines was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the ADA is concerned with things with a physical existence and thus cannot be applied to cyberspace. Judge Patricia A. Seitz found that the "virtual ticket counter" of the website was a virtual construct, and hence not a "public place of accommodation." As such, "To expand the ADA to cover 'virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards."