The amount of time we spend online to conduct daily business is ever-increasing. Because utilities provide important information to their customers including outages, announcements, and the ability to pay via their website, it is important that all individuals, including the disabled, have the opportunity to access that information.
As you are probably aware, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, makes it illegal for any business (or government agency) to provide goods and services to the public that are not also accessible to people who have disabilities.
But, what you may not know, is that since the summer of 2010, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has talked about issuing ADA regulations regarding website accessibility. Many, if not most, website owners adopted a “wait and see” attitude. In December of 2017, the DOJ announced that it was withdrawing any ADA regulations about websites.
The lack of specific regulation however, has not curtailed hundreds of letters and lawsuits threatening legal action against owners of websites that are not accessible. This is particularly applicable to federal contractors that are subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as their sites must be accessible as of early 2018. In other words, if you receive federal grants or other federal funds you must make your site 508-compliant.
In 2017 there were over 800 lawsuits filed in federal courts concerning website Accessibility. These were typically ADA Title III lawsuits alleging that public accommodations’ websites are not accessible to individuals with disabilities. There were a variety of outcomes with one court in the linked article dismissing the claim “because requiring the defendant to comply with a set of web accessibility guidelines that are not yet law would violate due process principles”.
A website that is accessible has been designed and developed so that it can be accessed by any user, particularly those with disabilities.
People who are blind or have vision difficulties face unique challenges using websites and need alternatives for perceiving words or images on a website. This may be addressed by developing the site such that a screen reader can be used which will read aloud text on the website in a logical manner.
Someone who is physically disabled may need to use a keyboard in lieu of navigating with a mouse. Those who are hearing impaired need text or captioning for the content of audio or video recordings. An accessible website has features which address these barriers.
WCAG 2.0 – The New Accessibility Standard
The most accepted website accessibility standards for the U.S. (and internationally as well) are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These are the accessibility standards established by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C). You can learn more about WCAG by visiting their website: https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag. Previously, there were different, sometimes conflicting guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. These bodies have normalized to use WCAG 2.0 as the base standard for web, non-web electronic content, and software effective January 18, 2018.
There are three levels of compliance – A, AA, and AAA with A being the less difficult and AAA being the most difficult to achieve. It appears at this point that WCAG 2.0 level AA will be the standard when actual regulations are written.
Making Your Website Accessible
There are a variety of tools and resources available that will help you evaluate your site to see if it is WCAG 2.0 compliant. These range from free to very expensive. You may check your site’s compliance using in house staff and one of the free or paid tools, or you may choose to hire an outside firm to evaluate your site. Some of the resources are companies that will only evaluate your site, or there are those that will evaluate your site and remediate errors.
Website accessibility is not a “one and done” for sites that are not static. If your site has frequent content changes, your site editors must be aware of steps they need to take to make new or updated content accessible.
It is also a good idea to communicate with your site visitors the steps you have taken to make your website compliant, your ongoing efforts for accessibility, and alternatives a visitor may have to get access to information on your site if those are needed.
Regardless of the lack of any legal requirement to comply with ADA Title III or similar acts, you may, for customer relations want to ensure that your website is accessible to individuals with disabilities. Also, providing an alternative method of accessing the same information which is on your website, such as a telephone number to call, may limit your legal risks and be of benefit to your customers. You should certainly discuss this with your counsel to understand your potential legal risks of non-compliance.
Donald Moore - President
Moore Tech Solutions, Inc.