What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
The Americans with Disabilities Act is proving to be one of the most important laws affecting web accessibility.
In recent years, U.S. courts have begun to apply the Act and its accessibility requirements to the online domain--which means that websites supporting businesses must comply with ADA rules.
First, a bit of background.
The ADA was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The law contains a series of prohibitions on discriminating against individuals on the basis of their disability.
The backdrop for this piece of legislation was a two-year trend among U.S. policymakers to advance civil rights to marginalized groups in American society, including those with disabilities. This was due in no small part to the intense lobbying efforts of activists and advocates of the disabled. In late 1988, the idea of federal legislation enhancing civil rights legislation for Americans with disabilities began to garner bipartisan support. Politicians drew precedent from the much older Rehabilitation Act, specifically Section 504 of the law which guarantees certain rights to disabled persons.
But while Section 504 was limited in its applicability to the government sector, the ADA was much wider in scope.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in several areas, some public in nature such as schooling and transportation, but also for certain private entities, namely those classified as “public accommodations”. This category includes businesses and places of work such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors' offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, and daycare centers. The obligation placed on businesses was twofold: First, ADA required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees.
As far as accommodating disabled customers, the ADA requires that no disabled person “be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services” of a publicly accessible business. Thus the law directs businesses to make "reasonable modifications" to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities.
Under the ADA, required accommodations at places of business for disabled individuals include:
- Ramp access for wheelchairs and other mobility devices
- Interface mechanisms for visually impaired
- Interpretive devices for the hearing impaired or qualified interpreters
- Accommodations for service animals
2018 Updates to ADA
Eighteen years after President Bush senior signed the original 1990 bill, his son President George W. Bush signed into law major changes to ADA’s structure.
The essence of the 2018 changes to ADA involved the definition of a disability. The ADA in its original form had defined a disabled person as one with a condition that “substantially limits” major “life activities.” This wording had pushed courts to conservatively define what in fact a disabled person was. This in turn allowed several lawsuits on the basis of ADA to be dismissed such as the famous Sutton vs. United Airlines case of 1999, and Toyota vs. Williams in 2002.
The 2018 amendments expanded the ADA’s scope by changing the definition of “major life activity” to include daily life tasks such as caring for oneself or performing manual operations. Similarly, the impairment of major bodily functions, including neurological, digestive, and respiratory functions, were now considered legal disabilities.
Who Has to Comply with the ADA?
Contrary to popular belief, the ADA does not apply solely to corporations or large companies.
In fact, the law was specifically geared toward small to medium businesses. The ADA covers employers with fifteen or more employees. This includes official institutions any organization connected to local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and labor organizations such as workers unions.
How Does the Law View the Online Domain?
As the World Wide Web began to play a more dominant role in the world of business, questions regarding the applicability of the ADA to online spaces began to emerge.
Over the past decade, U.S. courts have been far from unanimous on this issue. Some federal courts in the past have rejected the notion that ADA is at all relevant to digital entities as a website does not qualify as a "public place of accommodation".
However, in the past two years, a clear consensus has emerged that the online sphere is in fact covered by ADA statutes. This fact has been pointed out by both disability rights advocates and legal scholars. The clearest signal of ADA’s relevance to websites was put forth by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd in an official letter to members of Congress on September 2018. "The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago,” wrote Boyd. “This interpretation is consistent with the ADA's [...] requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities."
The fact that ADA covers online platforms is not just theoretical. The number of ADA related lawsuits has been increasing rapidly over the recent period. 2018 saw over 2000 cases related to ADA violations, a 180 percent increase from the previous year. Furthermore, this figure is only a fraction of all ADA legal complaints filed during that time, as the issuance of demand letters to accessibility-law violators also increased dramatically.
Web Accessibility Standards for ADA Compliance
U.S. courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have frequently referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA success criteria as a standard to determine a site’s accessibility. It should be noted, however, that the WCAG has not been formally codified into U.S. law. The DOJ has declined to adopt the WCAG as an official legal standard for the ADA. As Assistant Attorney General Boyd wrote to Congress: “Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”
The ambiguity of ADA’s standards for web accessibility is one of the bigger challenges facing businesses today. That ADA applies to online venues is clear from the steady stream of legal rulings requiring website compliance over the past several years. A recent decision by a U.S federal court required a major American corporation to revamp its website and mobile app. In its ruling, the Court stated unequivocally that the ADA applied to websites, as all online platforms were included in “places of public accommodations.”
Still, companies have been left with little to go on when figuring out how to make their websites legally compliant. In the current landscape, the WCAG remains the best measure of web accessibility when it comes to federal law.
In short, organizations have been granted flexibility in deciding how to make their websites accessible, but in most cases working to meet the Level AA success criteria of the latest version of WCAG will be the safest strategy.