The ADA and Universal Design: Why do We Develop Accessible Web Experiences?
Why do we develop accessible websites? And what does it even mean for a website to be accessible? The answers lay in a complicated 60-year history of disability activism and in 30-year-old legislation created before the web. It’s a story of U.C Berkeley wheelchair renegades who took sledgehammers to sidewalk curbs, a visionary architect who designed an illustrated guide to accessible building codes, and an ongoing attempt to define how the legislation that brought us wheelchair ramps applies to website design. This is the first in a series I’m writing on accessible web experiences. In the articles to follow, we’ll look closer at the “how” of accessible design. But to begin, we’ll focus on the “why”. The world’s first website went live on August 6, 1991, one year after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and only 11 days after publication by the Department of Justice of the Title II and Title III regulations for government and private entities that are open to the public. So website accessibility is not explicitly addressed within the ADA. However, a 2006 class action lawsuit against Target led to a federal court decision that the requirements of the ADA do indeed apply to websites. The DOJ has since generally held that the ADA applies to the websites of entities that serve the public, and the DOJ’s 2010 Standards for Accessible Design state, “Although the language of the ADA does not explicitly mention the Internet, the Department has taken the position that title II covers Internet Web site access.” Title II applies to state and local government agencies. The DOJ’s statements have been somewhat murkier and inconsistent in reference to Title III, which applies to privately owned places of public accommodation, but most DOJ pronouncements have affirmed that the ADA does apply to these websites. The preponderance of civil court cases have upheld this as well. So what does ADA compliance look like in a website? The DOJ’s original Standards for Accessible Design (PDF), published in 1991, provided detailed regulations for the maximum height of drinking fountain spouts (36 inches), the maximum force that can be required to open an interior self-closing door (5 lbf), and the maximum reach depth to ATM controls if the ATM can only be approached from a parallel pathway (10 inches). But the 1991 guidelines understandably said not a word about what was required of an accessible website. This has led to much confusion. What distinguishes an accessible website from an inaccessible one? In an attempt to bring clarity to the issue, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) established best practices for accessible design in its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), first published in 1999 and substantially revised in 2008. While it is a recommendation without the binding force of law, U.S. court rulings, beginning with Gil v. Winn-Dixie in 2017, have identified it as the “industry standard.” In 2003, the DOJ published “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities,” which established website accessibility standards for state and local governments, but rules for non-governmental entities remained in limbo. Starting in 2010, the DOJ gave advance notice of a rule-making process that would have, at last, clearly codified the U.S. legal standards of website accessibility for non-government entities. That process went through years of delays until a 2017 executive order effectively halted the process again. » Read More
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