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Web accessibility and the ADA

Special to the News Columns

Tech Tip Screen ShotsWebsites are now a new frontier for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because so much of the business and shopping that is done on a daily basis is now conducted online, disabled people who cannot access websites and other digital media are finding that they need assistance to be able to perform these tasks. This struggle has even resulted in some controversial litigation that exposes the problems with placing financial burdens on small businesses who are not aware of these regulations and may have difficulty paying for relevant updates to their website. Further confusion emerged due to the fact that there is no exact formula to indicate exactly when a website has implemented enough changes in design and functionality to assist every potential disabled user.

The background of the ADA

The ADA is a form of civil rights legislation that was passed in 1990. It was initially designed to ensure that people with disabilities could access all aspects of public life without having to worry about exclusion or discrimination. It even affects private sector businesses that are open to the general public, as they are also not allowed to exclude certain customers or clients because of their disabilities.

When the ADA was passed, the intent was to make physical spaces accessible for people in wheelchairs or those who needed other forms of special assistance. Electronic media may now also be changed to accommodate certain accessibility issues. As an extension of the legislative intent of this law, electronic spaces like websites are required to allow disabled people to perform tasks like book appointments, shop, or file documents electronically. Businesses or government agencies who do not have an accessible online presence can be exposed to lawsuits and other problems.

What exactly does the ADA require in digital spaces?

At a basic level, websites function by allowing people to do a few things specific like read text in a browser window as they navigate, then click certain areas with their mouse, or type information into various spots in text boxes as necessary. Obviously, some disabled users cannot perform these tasks and a number of different attempts have been made to provide them with a functional experience navigating the web. Some changes that websites can make to aid disabled people have been compiled in accessibility guidelines, but they are very extensive and can be difficult to understand and implement.

Some of the specific guidelines for making websites easier to access from the Web Accessibility Initiative requirements include:

  • Making sites usable for the visually impaired through features such as highlighting, larger cursors, and changes in fonts.
  • Assisting elderly individuals with adjustable text sizes and highlights to areas that contain links or other elements that can be clicked on the page.
  • Allowing the blind to access a website through audio cues and other features that enable them to interact with the site without relying on their vision.
  • Users that have mobility issues may not be able to use a mouse or other pointing device, but a website can be changed to allow greater keyboard functionality to remedy this problem.
  • Information needs to be available regarding a user’s location within a site or group of pages for navigation purposes.
  • Restrictions on how color perception can be used to require users to perform an action or obtain information.
  • A restriction on flashing lights or animations that can potentially cause seizures or other adverse physical reactions.
  • Specific requirements for line, word, and letter spacing in blocks of text in a browser window.

How does a website actually incorporate all of these features?

This sounds like a lot of information that is difficult to parse and put into practice in a functional website that can accommodate both disabled users and the rest of the general public. That is why so many businesses are confused by the regulations.

These guidelines have created additional problems because there is generally no simple template that will implement necessary changes for a business owner. In a time period where everything online seems to either be automated or scripted, businesses will probably need to hire a person or agency with serious web design and coding expertise to sort out these issues on their existing site. A convenient, easy fix is not available at this time.

The threat of lawsuits

Businesses also have to be careful of not following these guidelines, as websites without any accessibility features for the disabled have already gotten owners in trouble. Even for a small website, the necessary changes that need to be made to help disabled users can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars. These problems have made it to the local news, and some small businesses in Florida have had to spend thousands of dollars to pay attorney’s fees and agree to make changes to their websites within a certain period of time as part of a settlement.

However, critics have argued that this is exploitation of a rule that is technically on the books, but has not been enforced or implemented in any kind of meaningful way. Technically, it is illegal to have a website that is inaccessible to disabled individuals due to the possibility of excluding them from an online shopping experience.

Is it possible to create a website that eliminates most of these issues?

For those who are concerned, there are agencies all over the web that will make the necessary changes to make your website functional for disabled users and minimize the possibility of lawsuits. So it is certainly possible to have the right updates implemented while still maintaining a functional web presence. However, it can take time depending on certain factors such as the age and complexity of the existing site.

Florida’s 11th Circuit has ruled that any business that has a physical retail space or storefront can technically be held liable under these regulations, so a website update may be a worthy one-time investment. An audit and implementation of features meant to help disabled people will improve a website’s overall level of accessibility while shielding the business from most potential litigation.

Learn more about how websites can implement accessibility guidelines

For further information about updating websites to address any potential accessibility issues, contact Digital Age Marketing Group. They have already assisted many attorneys with updating their online business model to get closer to satisfying the ADA regulations and minimize the possibility of lawsuits.

Peter Charles is with Digital Age Marketing Group/ Digital Age Marketing Group is an approved Florida Bar Member Benefits provider.


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