What is Web Accessibility and Why is it Important?

Joshua Baker

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, but 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!

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. For private companies, there is an emerging trend of accessibility becoming a serious legal matter that can lead to a site getting 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 all these 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 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.” While this 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 while clear, lacks specificity for how to make websites compliant and 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 how does it apply to my website?

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

What is WCAG?

As the web has grown there have been attempts to create something that resembles guidelines for web accessibility, but 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, founded in 1994 by the creator of the World Wide Web protocol, Tim Berners Lee, sets global standards for how humanity manages the basic structure of the internet as we know it. The W3C is not a government entity but it works with governments such as those of the European Union in establishing enforceable legal standards for accessibility of websites. 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 ambiguous position and millions of people excluded from using sites on the internet!

What’s Next for Web Accessibility?

In the US, while there are no specific enforceable standards yet beyond the ambiguity of 508 and 504 compliance, accessibility compliance is evolving into a legally enforceable requirement. As a stopgap solution, we use the WCAG guidelines to meet the broader accessibility standards of sections 508 and 504. Adding to the confusion is an explosion of lawsuits in the last few years being filed against sites for not being accessible. The number of lawsuits is still under 10,000 per year but the trend is evident. Some recent high profile cases for 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! 

Then, 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. Dominos attempted to get the case thrown out by requesting the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to hear the case. This fall, in a surprising turn of events SCOTUS denied the petition by Domino’s to hear the case and sent the case back to the lower courts to be heard.

The denial of the petition that sent the case back to the lower courts is important because 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 web accessibility mean for me and my website?

While there is no need to panic, 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.

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