How is the ADA an issue for Website or Business Owners?
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) has been used in recent years increasingly that “barriers to access” is not limited to physical locations of business, but also freely available information or any products and services sold on the web.
Long story short, if your business or organization has a website and it is not ADA compliant, you very well might have legal exposure of some kind.
Complainants do not have to notify businesses before filing suit and thousands of lawsuits have been filed in the past two years, with a case as of 2019 in front of the Supreme Court involving a blind man and access to Domino's Pizza.
While there is no failsafe legal protection from any suit, a federal court has identified a particular level of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) as an “industry standard” in a ruling against Winn-Dixie, Inc.
What is the difference between the ADA and WCAG?
The ADA, passed in Congress in 1990 and signed into law by George H.W. Bush, covers a wide range of protections for the disabled is often the context of accessing businesses' physical locations or products and services on their websites or web apps.
All organizations are included, and even Harvard was ruled via Title III of the ADA to be required to make their free and publicly available websites compliant and accessible to all users with recognized disabilities. The ADA is a federal law that must be complied with and is a strict liability law.
The WCAG, on the other hand, is a set of web standards developed by the foremost web organization in the world, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).
First released in 1999 as the WCAG 1.0, it has expanded to a set of about 40-80 general guidelines at three levels (A, AA, AAA) under the WCAG 2.0 (2008) and WCAG 2.1 (2018).
There are online organizations (often using .org domains) that will market themselves as “accessibility organizations” in an attempt to sell consulting services.
However, the WCAG is the only set of professional standards endorsed by the W3C and explicitly referenced in federal court as a standard in accessibility. Any other set of guidelines or accessibility measures may be helpful as a starting point, but should not be seen as satisfying WCAG points.
How to Begin Working with Website ADA Compliance?
It’s the responsibility of any business to limit legal exposure. Naturally, if a company is sued or finds itself unsure of its legal standing with ADA compliance, calling a legal team or lawyer is both the place to start and finish.
While technical consulting will likely be needed, legal advice comes from lawyers and not web designers. Business owners should not hesitate to call a lawyer on top of any tech or web development approaches they’re considering.
When it comes to beginning work with a web team (in-house or otherwise) the key is to understand the team’s resources and knowledge level. Advanced teams may only need step-by-step guidance on what changes to make to their website, while they will handle actually making the changes themselves.
Some businesses or organizations with smaller or contracted websites, may need more heavy lifting, and will actually require hiring a development team (or consulting firm) capable of making both the recommendations and code changes to the website to bring it up to speed.
Of course, there is also the issue of content creation, such as transcripts of audio & video or image descriptions--organizations may need this content created for their existing web content.
Some development teams will need lots of technical help, others very little - but both will likely need in-depth and step-by-step advice on what changes need to be made, even if how they get implemented is left up to developers.
When & How To Hire A Consulting Firm?
Generally, web development teams are skilled in making whatever edits or changes are needed for a web application or piece of software. It’s the types of changes and content needed for those changes where most development teams will need help.
Business owners or digital leads at any organization will need to make sure their developers have content resources (to create transcripts or descriptions) and consulting resources (to tell them exactly what to execute) in order to bring their websites up to ADA compliance.
Consulting confirms will save developers and business owners a tremendous amount of time and effort whittling down exactly what changes and additions they need to make.
The key is to find an agency with the flexibility required for the particular business or organization, with considerations such as size, timeframe, the complexity of their digital products and the resources available internally or externally for web development and content creation.
Some firms may need very little help while others may need a full-service agency to take over every step of the process from recommendations to creation to implementation and testing.
What Level of WCAG Compliance Prevents Legal Exposure to ADA Lawsuits?
A federal court in Florida labeled Level AA of WCAG 2.0 as the “industry standard” in web accessibility, and might be the best answer to that question at this time.
The changing legal and technical landscape of the issue makes it difficult to necessarily find a static “hurdle” to clear in a legal sense.
The most important thing for a business owner to keep in mind is the dual nature of the issue. Satisfying WCAG guidelines is the absolute best way to increase accessibility to web apps and websites, and to increase use from all users across the spectrum of disabilities and physical ableness.
The ADA, however, is a strict liability federal law that must be complied with at all times. The ADA is public policy, which is subjected to shifting at any time, with any other legal exposures coming into play concurrently.
However, the W3C promises that WCAG standards, while they will update from time to time, are based on principles that do not change.
“WCAG 2.0 guidelines and success criteria are designed to be broadly applicable to current and future web technologies, including dynamic applications, mobile, digital television, etc. They are stable and do not change.”
-World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)