The ADA and the Web: Concerns and Misconceptions
July 30, 2010
by Jared Smith
WebAIM is often approached by individuals and organizations concerned about “ADA compliance” of their web site. This is a bit of a misnomer. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 pre-dates and does not address web accessibility at all. That may soon be changing.
This week the US Department of Justice announced that they are considering expanding the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover some web sites. This is simply a request for comments.
The Dept. of Justice will consider your feedback in any formal proposal to expand the ADA.
This announcement has brought much dialogue in the development community, particularly on this popular Slashdot story.
It is clear that there are many concerns and misconceptions about what this would mean. There are also many deep-rooted, philosophical arguments against the ADA in general that have come to light. Web regulation is tricky. As a web accessibility consultancy, ADA requirements will certainly bring us more business (though admittedly, our goal is to work ourselves out of employment by making the web entirely accessible – something not likely to happen in the near future). The ADA and its implementation is far from perfect, but I believe that we live in a world where people with disabilities should have opportunities to engage in commerce and online activities uninhibited by discrimination. This has generally not occurred to date.
So, with the assumption that the Department of Justice will recommend that the ADA cover some web sites, I’d like to address some of the concerns and misconceptions about the ADA’s potential application. These all come directly from the Slashdot story comments.
“Why do I have to make my personal web site compliant?”
You don’t. Private web sites would not be covered by the ADA. Government sites and websites that provide “goods, services, and programs to the public”, including shopping and other publicly accessible e-commerce sites, will likely be covered. Where or how this distinction will be made is unknown. It is quite possible that, like physical buildings, different types or classes of web sites would be required to meet different levels of compliance.
“People with disabilities do not use my site”
This same argument was heard when the ADA became law in 1990. Bus operators, for example, complained that they should not have to make their buses accessible because people in wheelchairs did not ride them. Of course they did not, because they could not.
Are you sure people with disabilities do not use your site? If they don’t, is it because it is not as accessible as it could be? There is no way to detect
whether a visitor to your site has a disability.
“My content can’t be made accessible.”
The ADA does and would require reasonable efforts and accommodations. Nothing in ADA or any other web accessibility guidelines would require that you fundamentally change what it is you do with your web site. Art galleries would not be required to pull the plug on their site because blind users can’t see their art.
Music vendors would not have to close their doors because the Deaf can’t listen to music.
“The web will go back to looking like 1990.”
Most web accessibility happens ‘under the hood’ of a web site. Any accessibility-related modification to the visual design of a site almost universally
increases the usability of that site to all users. For example, having sufficient contrast is required for users with some visual disabilities, yet good
contrast makes the site more readable by everyone. Captions are necessary for users with auditory disabilities, yet can provide great benefit to anyone
watching web video.
Modern, stylish, well-designed, interactive web sites and web applications can fully support accessibility. In fact, they can do so better than any site
built in the 1990s.
“Why all the effort for so few people?”
Conservative statistics indicate that at least 8.5% of the population has a disability that would affect internet use. This may not seem significant, though
I bet that most web developers spend time ensuring compatibility with browsers that are used by fewer users.
Yes, web accessibility requires some effort, but it is not overly burdensome if you build or purchase a usable site that is built using web standards. Accessible web design is good, usable web design. Efforts made to improve the accessibility for people with disabilities will likely make the site better for everyone.
“There is no economic benefit to being accessible.”
There are certainly costs associated with web accessibility. But there is also potential for great benefits. Consider viewing accessibility as more than
simply opening the door to 8.5% of the population, but as an opportunity to directly target that audience and their multi-billion dollar discretionary
The web is generally not very accessible now. Those businesses that are ahead of the curve with ADA compliance have the potential to greatly benefit from receiving the business of this audience. Apple, for example, sees this potential; they’ve implemented high levels of accessibility into their new products, such as the iPhone and iPad, despite no regulatory requirement that they do so.
“Accessibility regulations will force me to close my small, online business.”
Perhaps. Accessibility does not come free. The Department of Justice will consider the burden and economic impact when considering whether and how to regulate small business web sites. The further your site is from being designed to web standards, the more expensive and difficult it will be to make accessible. The cost is generally inversely proportional to the accessibility knowledge of the developer building the site.
Thus, there is a need for better web development tools and better educated web developers who are committed to building things with standards in mind. This will come over time; and the regulations will certainly allow for this. When the ADA originally became law, there were many contractors that specialized in making physical spaces accessible. Now, there are simply contractors – nearly all of whom have the technical knowledge to naturally construct things to be accessible. The same is likely to happen with the web – and that is a good thing for everyone.
As noted above, accessibility can be an economic boon, especially for the businesses that do it right and do it early.
“I can’t just make my website accessible over night.”
And there will be no requirement to do so. If web compliance is at all similar to accessibility of physical spaces, there will be allowances for legacy
content, transition plans, exemptions for certain types of content or businesses, etc.
The ultimate goal is to become more accessible over time.
“I shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to make sure I’m compliant with thousands of pages of State and Federal regulations when I publish a web page?”
Accessibility guidelines can be daunting, but they are not overly technical. ADA guidelines will almost certainly mirror or at least reflect the
WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines. There is a wealth of information ( including this WCAG 2.0 evaluation checklist)
available here at WebAIM.org and elsewhere.
One would not need a lawyer to verify compliance. Only in the case where a site remains inaccessible and discriminatory with no effort to improve might
a lawyer be needed.