The ADA and the Web: Concerns and Misconceptions

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 income.

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.

If you have additional concerns or thoughts about the ADA and its potential applicability to web content, please post them in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Charlie

    An interesting and well written post Jared. Thanks.

  2. Pooja Nahata

    A much needed interpretation and very well articulated!

  3. Jeanine Lineback

    Love this post. My only concern is that if the web is included in the ADA that it doesn’t get bogged down in legal battles in the department of justice. I don’t think that has to happen, as long as like this post, we educate web designers on what the regulations for web accessibility are and how they can benefit all users of the web.

  4. Maggie

    A very interesting idea. I can see this making a huge difference in the lives of people with epilepsy who are photosensitive. Websites with flash ads that are unnecessarily…well…flashy…make it dangerous for photosensitive epileptics to browse the web, but some form of regulation against this could be greatly beneficial. It could also prevent deliberately malicious attacks designed to cause harm, such as what happened in 2008. (http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/aboutus/pressroom/action_against_hackers.cfm)

  5. Dallas

    It is striking, and funny, to think of how much time we web developers spend making sure that our websites work on browsers with 8% or less of market share. It’s probably much easier to spend that time on accessibility and I know it’s much more fun! Very good point.

    So when you say “Private web sites would not be covered by the ADA” do you mean as long as the website does not provide “public accommodations” or “goods, services, and programs to the public” it will not be covered?

    Maybe it’s because I’m not a lawyer, but that seems very difficult to interpret to me. Which websites will have to comply with this law if it is changed?

    For instance, my home is not covered by the ADA since it is not a public place. In the same way could it be argued that my blog is not covered since it is not a public place? I don’t sell any goods or services on my blog.

    On the other hand, couldn’t it also be argued that blogs provide news services and therefore do constitute “public accommodations” or “public services”?

    To go back to the comparison between my home and my blog, to me, it seems that unless I restrict my blog readership to a group of private users, I am basically hanging a sign on my “home” that says “Public welcome, feel free to look around”.

    If I opened my home up to the public like that, would my home not then become subject to the ADA? (I’m sure my HOA would shut me down before I could install the wheelchair ramp.)

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. For my part, I am pleased the Department of Justice is taking this step.

  6. Jared Smith

    Dallas-

    You bring up some very good questions. Most of them you answered, at least partially, on your own. I’m not certain what will happen. It will be difficult for them to define the scope of the ADA to web sites. Where is the line between “private” and “private but provides public goods and services”? Will you have to be a commercial site for the ADA to apply? What about non-profits? Charities? Etc.?

    Indeed, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  7. Cliff Tyllick

    Jared, I thought of an interesting way to present that “8.5%” to Web developers. Here it is:

    Think back to junior high. You’re on the playground, and teams are being chosen for a game of touch football. Each team has only 11 players, but there are 24 kids in the class. The fast kids, the strong kids, the tall kids get picked — every kid but you and another ungainly nerd. Twenty-two kids play and have a great time, but the two of you are left on the sideline to discuss your favorite math teacher and other stimulating subjects. Whoopee.

    Guess what? You’re among the 8.5 percent left out by a society that won’t accommodate your needs — just like the people who will be left out if we don’t make the Web more accessible.

    Except you were left out of one half-hour game of football.

    They would be left out of life.

  8. Kevin Novak

    Jared,

    Very well said. The major take away for all should be that if a site is designed to be accessible, the site will be improved for all that access it. I believe some view this as additional work when they should really look at it as creating a better website, ensuring all that want to use it, can.

  9. bcotier

    W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative‘s Accessible Rich Internet Applications specification or ARIA for short is currently a separate initiative is struggling with Microsoft to implement standards. I am a designer whose clients are the U.S. government. The only remaining browser to not support accessibility is Internet Explorer (IE).

    It actually costs more for developers to maintain and continue to write for the remaining IE6 laggards. Even when IE9 comes out it will not fully support W3 standards and ARIA. This is a shame. If business owners understood that supporting standards compliant web sites was in fact a cost effective choice and that it is in fact more costly to continue to support for legacy browsers.

    Please, do not place this solely on web developers. IE shares the lion share of responsibility and so to the businesses that insist on using the browser.

  10. Jared Smith

    Cliff-

    What do you mean “another ungainly nerd”? I can accept the suggestion that I am a “nerd”, but I resemble the suggestion that I’m “ungainly”. ;-)

  11. Tom Caswell

    I wasn’t aware of this story on Slashdot. Nice job working through the myths and other concerns.

  12. Allan Smithie

    Officially, more than 20 percent of the US population has some type of disability. That’s more than 60 million people. Or put it another way. If one considers the disabled a “minority group” only women are a larger minority group. As a group, there are more disabled people than there are African American, than there are people of Hispanic descent, etc. Any one who claims about meeting the accessibility needs of “those people” are ignorant at best and downright discriminatory at worst.

    Granted many of these disabled people are not disabled when it comes to electronic disability. However, current law does not allow someone else to make that designation on their behalf. Complaining about “disabled people” is itself part of the larger unlawful discrimination Americas still cannot shake.

    Finally, by the time people reach their late 30s to early 40s, they begin a process that will affect more than 99 percent of the population who reach that age and there is nothing that will stop it. It’s called presbyopia and it affects the eyes. The correct mechanism is bifocals, or other assistive technology. Whether people want to accept it or not, 99 percent of the population becomes electronically disabled beginning in their late 30s. Considering the wealth, power and influence of our society resides with those with a few years, the truly “disabled” when it comes to accessibility are the ignorant and or the selfish.

    I fully support ADA including web accessibility under public accommodation. It’s about time.

  13. Gabriel

    Thanks for the post. I saw the Slashdot comments and was pretty shocked by how ignorant people are of the ADA. Web accessibility is not that big a deal to implement, yet the responses to the story showed that some people seem to think the ADA is the cause of all economic problems.

  14. Olivier Nourry

    Very good wrap-up of the subject, it is certainly very useful to accessibility advocates and skeptics alike.
    You mention a study about internet usage affected by disabilities (the 8.5% figure). Could you please provide a link or reference to this? I usually struggle to correlate disability and accessibility, in terms of statistics, since they are not necessarily linked together. So it would help to have solid material about that.
    Thanks in advance.

  15. hubbühne

    On the other hand, couldn’t it also be argued that blogs provide news services and therefore do constitute “public accommodations” or “public services

  16. Liz Layman

    What is your thought on using a VPAT for state agency and non-federally funded websites? Having to submit a VPAT/PAT/GPAT for federally funded websites, web-applications and software applications holds these accountable to say how it does or does not meet Section 508. What may be done for the ADA guidelines and non-federally funded websites? A VPAT is “voluntary”. Would it be concidered required in the future for all to have some sort of accessibility statement and indicate compliance with guidelines?

  17. Whoisbid

    People with disabilities can benefit from learning web skills to make money for themselves. I have personally suffered from some kind of disability most of my life . If there are practical ways that accessibility helps people to be more productive and thus more financially sound , then we have done something right. Please leave this comment up if you care about the opinion of a person who knows about disabilities.

  18. Paul

    Happy Holidays, Jared et al.!

    Good read, as usual… A few brief reflections:

    While I’ve met and know a number of attorneys, bright and amiable folks, very few have the technical expertise to determine whether a web product/service is accessible, as measured against WCAG v2.0 or Section 508…

    Hmm, interesting examples regarding an online art gallery and online music and users who are blind and those who are deaf, respectively… I can’t help and wonder if visitors who lost their sight later in life and retain visual memory would be unnecessarily blocked from some of the benefits of an online gallery with accessible navigation, perhaps audio tours, names of works, and detailed, long text or audio descriptions/histories of works… I can’t help wonder as well about either children or parents who were born blind and nonetheless have a need to help their children or parents with an art-appreciation/history project and who could benefit from such aforementioned features of an accessible online art gallery… I would also question similarly “reasoning” that visitors who are deaf cannot/couldn’t bebefit from features of an accessible online music site… For instance, deaf children or parents could use such an accessible sight to assist their child or parent in researching music composers, names of songs, music history, kinds of instruments, music theory, tracks to purchase, lyrics, etc… Besides, as you know, music/sounds can easily be converted into recognizeable wave forms and felt as vibrational patterns at a sufficient volume… Yes, yes, to be sure, unless we are sound/usic engineers, we don’t normally perceive music in such visual terms and thus wouldn’t equate the song, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” with its’ visual wave form… Anyway, in sum, I propose that we consider that sufficient needs/benefits of an accessible web product/service may extend beyond the question of what is the “fundamental nature” of a site’s intended modality-prone content and our current preconceptions of such a putative nature…

    For any business owners/readers with a web presence, I want to echo and illustrate Jared’s point that sufficiently improved web accessibility can definitely foster economic benefits… Below, I provided a few conservative estimates of my monthly and annual online expenses — doubtless an incomplete list — and then a projection of those annual expenses to only a hundred thousand such average blind consumers as myself:

    Per-Person Monthly Cost of Audible = $21.95
    … of Online Music = $3 (ITunes or Amazon MP3′s)
    … of Online Movies: $4 (iTunes or Amazon on-Demand)
    … of iBooks = $50
    … of Online Groceries (PeaPod) = $160
    Per-Person Subtotal = $238.95
    Per-Person Yearly Total = $2,867.40
    Projection of 100k Average Blind Consumers Per Year = $286,740,000.00

    I know, I know, that blind dude seems to eat and read quite a bit monthly… Of course, to keep trim, he swims laps throughout the year and skis out in Utah and Wyoming as much as he can get away…

    Anyhoo, my point, as is one of Jared’s, is that many of us blind and other consumers with disabilities have various needs or wants and income — quite a bit, collectively — to exercise such cnsumer needs or wants by shopping and purchasing online where we find accessible and user-friendly electronic/IT/web products/services/store fronts… All those products/services listed above, while likely not fully WCAG or 508-conformant and thus could use some remediation, are sufficiently accessible to some of us as to allow us to access/use/purchase/research them all independently and without any sighted assistance.

    Another simple case in point of accessibility fostering economic benefits is that of the iPhone 3GS and subsequent iDevices… That is, as most or all of you know, these iDevices and at least shipped apps arrive almost out-of-the-box darn accessible/usable to users who are blind and able to efficaciously learn and apply the Apple’s HUI gesture paradigm of navigation/operation… Well, that means, just for a couple examples, that with such an iDevice, a blind consumer can research/review/buy songs and other media via iTunes on her/his iDevice and the same is true with iBooks (which I happen to purchase more of, on average, then tracks from iTunes)…

  19. Zoe Gillenwater

    “Conservative statistics indicate that at least 8.5% of the population has a disability that would affect internet use.”

    I could really use the source for this stat. Not that I doubt it, but because I want to share it with others I work with, and I must have the source when I do so.

  20. Jared Smith

    Zoe-

    The 8.5% comes from the 2000 Census data. It’s a compilation of the data for those with disabilities that would affect computer use (vision, hearing, certain mobile disabilities) with some accounting for those with multiple disabilities. Taking the same approach with this census data – http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-117.pdf – shows the number could be as high as 13%, and that is still excluding color deficiency and many learning/cognitive disabilities.

  21. Zoe Gillenwater

    Excellent, thanks Jared!

  22. Anders from billiga webbhotell

    Nice post! I agree with you that most webmasters out there do not focus on designing and developing a website for these 8.5 % In my opinion it is simply because of the following “A designers simply doesnt think about it” or “forget about it”. There is some much to do when developing a site that these issues drop under priority 2 or 3. Knowledge and information must be exchanged and there must be more focus on these issues.