What is Web Accessibility and Why is it Important?

Think of web accessibility as a wheelchair ramp into the front door of your business or organization. Without it, you may be putting yourself at risk for a lawsuit. More importantly, you are excluding valuable customers from accessing your products or services. The web is the same, except every button, image, video, and page are stairs in need of a ramp. Web accessibility is rapidly becoming a very important component of the internet. There is an emerging expectation that all websites must be accessible to all people regardless of impairment or disability. Not only is it an expectation, it’s an evolving legal standard, and above all, the right thing to do. Inclusion matters!

Picture of wheelchair access logo on block in grass. The block also says step free route beneath the logo with an arrow pointing to the right below the text. This image draws parallels between wheelchair accessibility and web accessibility.

Why designing for inclusion matters

Websites need to be accessible to as many people as possible. Website owners must address this issue as not only the “right” thing to do for your site’s users, but as a matter of law. In the case of public agencies and organizations, accessibility is a requirement. There is an emerging trend of web accessibility becoming a serious legal matter for private organizations. Sites can get flagged for noncompliance or subjected to a lawsuit. Websites must meet the needs of their users through establishing high usability standards. Impairments and disabilities cannot prevent people from accessing and understanding content on websites.

What are these Web Accessibility terms?

You may have heard of various phrases such as “508 Compliance,” “ADA Compliance,” or “WCAG Compliance.” Let’s break down what these all mean and why web accessibility is important for your site.

Section 508 Web Accessibility is from 1973?

Well, not exactly, but it was added more recently to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 is the closest legal language we have in the US for web accessibility. The statute refers broadly to “Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22).” Section 508 has language adopted from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which we will get to in a moment. 

Under Section 508, all federal agencies must be compliant with 508 for website accessibility hence the phrase “508 Compliance.” 508 only applies to federal agencies. What does that mean for all other sites? We will break down sites into a couple of different categories. 

First, there are those websites who are recipients of federal assistance. These sites fall under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They are prohibited from discrimination based on disability for communications but are not legally bound to comply with section 508. This language is clear, but lacks specificity for how to make websites compliant. In addition, it is different from Section 508. Confused yet? Still don’t have an answer for your site?  Don’t worry, there is light at the end of the tunnel!

What about ADA and Web accessibility?

ADA stands for the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was signed into federal law in 1990 in the US. At the time, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and no statutes or guidelines were added for web accessibility to websites. We’ll find out in moment how this is changing. 

What is WCAG Web Accessibility?

As the web has grown there have been attempts to create something that resembles guidelines. However, there has remained an enormous amount of ambiguity around legal accessibility standards. In 1998, the World Wide Web Consortium(W3C) collected and codified a number of different sets of guidelines into the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The current version is 2.1 however, much of the web still references 2.0 which has been in use since 2008. 

The W3C was founded in 1994 by the creator of the World Wide Web protocol by Tim Berners Lee. It sets global standards for how humanity manages the basic structure of the internet as we know it. The W3C is not a government entity. It works with governments such as those of the European Union to establish legal standards for web accessibility. While these guidelines are very specific and helpful they are not technically US federal law. 
In 2016, the US Department Of Justice recommended adopting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)  2.0 as part of the ADA, but the government did not follow through on the recommendation. This was a positive step forward though it still leaves most site owners in a legally unclear position and millions of people excluded from using sites on the internet!

What’s Next for Website Accessibility?

In the US, there are no specific enforceable standards yet beyond the ambiguity of 508 and 504 compliance. Web accessibility compliance however, is evolving into a legal requirement. As a stopgap solution, we use the WCAG guidelines to meet the broader web accessibility standards of sections 508 and 504. An increase in lawsuits in the last few years filed against sites for not being accessible adds to the confusion. The number of lawsuits is still under 10,000 per year but the trend is evident. Recent high profile cases for web accessibility include the Winn-Dixie grocery store chain, Fox News, Burger King, and believe or not, even Beyonce because her site was found to not be accessible! 

In an escalation of these accessibility lawsuits, an even higher profile case came to light. A customer sued Dominos Pizza under the ADA for a lack of accessibility on the app and the website. Attempting to get the case thrown out, Dominos requested the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hear the case. This fall, in a surprising turn of events SCOTUS denied the petition by Domino’s to hear the case. SCOTUS sent the case back to the lower courts.

The denial of the petition that sent the case back to the lower courts is important. SCOTUS is essentially saying this lawsuit needs to return to it’s normal legal course and should be taken seriously. This decision may prove to have a profound impact on how the federal government interprets the internet and all websites’ accessibility under the ADA. It is likely going forward, ADA compliance will be specific and considered a matter of the law whether through legislation or legal precedence.

What does this all mean for me and my website?

In conclusion, there is no need to panic. But, the time has arrived to take accessibility on your website  seriously. It is as important as wheelchair accessibility to your place of business if your website was a public physical space. Feel free to contact us for a free 30 minute consultation and check out our web accessibility services!

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