Basis for Accessibility Laws
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in any state in the US. However, ADA discrimination laws do not clearly define what discrimination looks like when applied to websites, and lawmakers have not established clear laws for states to follow regarding website accessibility.
Existing legislation is most commonly on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This set of guidelines is widely accepted by a number of countries around the world as a standard for web accessibility.
There are four elements of WCAG:
- Understandable, and
Using these guidelines to legislate for digital accessibility gives a clear definition of what accessibility should look like. Websites and digital information that meet WCAG will be accessible for all users, and discrimination and lack of usability can be avoided.
WCAG standards have also been used in lawsuits to determine whether or not a defendant has discriminated against a disabled plaintiff. Many private organizations like schools, hospitals, or even the states who have accessibility policies, reference WCAG standards.
State Civil Rights Laws
A state’s civil rights laws may also apply to an ADA discrimination case. Most commonly, state laws prohibit a person or company from discriminating against another person. Preventing anyone from visiting or enjoying a place of public accommodation, such as a restaurant, shopping mall, or restaurant, is the usual definition of discrimination. Many courts have ruled that websites are also considered places of public accommodation, and therefore state civil rights laws should be applied.
State-specific laws may also be subject to different types of damages than nationwide ADA laws. The ADA prohibits plaintiffs from recovering damages aside from court costs and legal fees on a federal level, but some states, such as New York and Florida, allow plaintiffs to recover punitive damages in addition to their legal fees on the state level. California even has a law in place on the state level that sets the minimum amount which plaintiffs can recover at $4000 under the Unruh Act.
In every state, federal government agencies are legally required to make their websites accessible to all visitors, mandated by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This includes any organizations who receive government funding, such as public hospitals or schools. Section 508 is broken down into 15 standards.
- Text alternatives to all non-text elements.
- Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
- Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example, from context or markup.
- Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
- Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
- Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
- Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
- Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
- Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
- Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
- A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of these standards when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
- When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
- When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with §1194.21(a) through (l).
- When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
Every government agency is required to comply with Section 508, but other public and private institutions may also be required to comply with similar standards under separate state laws. While there are no national web accessibility laws specific to non-federal government institutions, many courts have ruled that websites can be considered a place of public accommodation, which falls under the ADA.
To avoid possible discrimination litigation, your best solution is to educate your staff about WCAG guidelines and implement these when creating digital content to ensure your website is accessible to everyone. State laws applying to digital accessibility vary widely, so check out our new state accessibility legislation page to make sure you know which laws are applicable in your state.