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Does Your Website Have to Be ADA Compliant?

The news continues to heat up around ADA compliance for websites. Does your website have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act? And if so, what do you have to do?

The ADA and Public Accommodations

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

What’s a public accommodation? Essentially, that term applies to anything that’s used by the public, whether or not that “thing” is privately owned.

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What About Websites?

Do these requirements affect your website? The answer, unfortunately, is “It depends.”

United States Federal courts are divided into several geographic circuits. When different courts disagree on an issue, that’s what lawyers refer to as a “circuit split.” The law may be different depending on where you or your users are based, and this may remain the same until the Supreme Court steps in and resolves the controversy.

There are two basic issues here:

  1. Does the ADA apply to websites at all?
  2. If so, how does the ADA apply to websites?

The trend seems to be that the answer to Question #1 is Yes, the ADA will be applied to websites (again, however, some courts disagree.)

Question #2 is trickier. A recent case in the 9th Circuit (which covers several Western states, including California, where I’m writing from) held that only websites that have a connection to a publicly accessible physical location must be ADA-compliant. So if you have a web-only business, you may not need to comply. If, on the other hand, your website is related to a business that someone can actually go to (like, say, a restaurant), compliance is required in those states.

OK, So What Should I Do?

The best practice is to move towards greater accommodation for disabled visitors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts out checklists for content creators. Here’s one for HTML websites; the principles could apply to any other coding format.

For the most part, the guidelines are simple and obvious. Visually impaired website visitors often use programs that translate text to speech, so the checklist recommends “equivalent alternative text specified in the alt attribute of the img element.”

For colorblind or impaired visitors, the checklist asks, “Is information conveyed by color also conveyed by context, markup, graphic coding, or other means?”

Some of the points on the checklist are a bit harder to parse, such as: “Do special readers or plug-ins comply with the requirements of Section 508 paragraphs §1194.21(a)-(l)?” This has to do with issues such as visitors who are unable to use a mouse; will they be able to navigate the site using only a text-based keyboard?

The ADA’s website also provides a “Tool Kit,” which, although it dates back to 2007, is still generally applicable.

A Few Final Points

As with many Internet Law issues, this becomes incredibly complicated because websites don’t just sit in one geographic location; they’re often used by people around the world. As your company grows and achieves traction in multiple countries, make sure your team familiarizes itself with the rules in each territory where you’re doing business (or where you have a significant number of users.)

Next, you may be asking, “What about apps?” The answer is that, while Congress certainly didn’t foresee the rise of mobile apps back in 1990, the same legal principles would apply. If an app is used by members of the public, it may fall under compliance requirements; particularly if the app is connected to a business with a physical location that’s publicly accessible.

Finally, a thought—as more and more websites and apps are required to comply with the ADA and other, similar laws, this seems like a business opportunity for web designers and app developers. So far, I haven’t found a company that advertises “We will take your website or app and make it ADA compliant,” but they may be out there…and if they’re not, someone should jump on that.

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