A recent federal court case makes it clear that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies in the digital realm. Experts share some tips to ensure your association’s websites and apps are compliant.
A court case involving one of the world’s largest restaurant chains may have helped to clear the air about digital accessibility rules in the United States.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court declined to hear what had the potential to be a landmark case on digital accessibility. The justices let stand a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites and mobile apps operated by businesses with physical locations.
It’s one of a handful of federal court challenges involving the ADA in recent years, and even without a ruling that applies nationally, Domino’s Pizza LLC v. Robles offers helpful guidance for associations and other organizations.
Julia Judish, special counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, said the ruling is binding for the nine Western states covered by the Ninth Circuit. That effectively makes it applicable to associations based anywhere that have website users in those states.
The plaintiff, a blind customer who could not use the Domino’s website to order a pizza, had sought a decision that required businesses to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a standard managed by the World Wide Web Consortium. Although the Ninth Circuit did not define specific legal requirements for website accessibility, legal settlements from the Justice Department generally include requirements to use WCAG 2.0, Judish said.
“Associations that maintain websites and apps that do not meet WCAG 2.0 standards therefore risk legal challenges,” she added.
Judish suggested that the Ninth Circuit decision could prove a strong standard for future digital accessibility cases. “Courts in other states may find the reasoning of the Ninth Circuit persuasive,” she said.
Scoping for Accessibility
So what are some of the things you need to consider if you’re building a website or app for accessibility?
Violaine Iglesias, CEO and cofounder of the scholarly publishing startup Cadmore Media, said accessibility standards are generally guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules—and this could have implications for a project’s scope.
“Instead of just saying, ‘These are the rules I need to follow’ and having a black-and-white type of situation, you have to make choices,” Iglesias said. “Sometimes, something you’re going to be doing to make a website accessible is going to make it less sophisticated.”
A common challenge is designing for all types of accessibility needs. What makes a website work well for visually impaired users, for example, may not be the best solution for those with a hearing impairment. You have to find a balance, Iglesias said.
Judish said accessibility is a “moving target” that will evolve with tech innovations and shifting public needs. “Associations also need to be flexible themselves in responding to concerns that an individual has difficulty accessing web content or an application due to a particular disability,” she said.
Start Fresh OR Retrofit?
Often, website accessibility is a design concern that affects a site’s overall structure. While some accessibility improvements can be made to an existing site, Iglesias said retrofitting tends to be more costly than starting fresh.
“Part of making websites accessible means being able to skip between the sections,” she said. “And in order to be able to do that, you need to think through the structure of your site as something that’s got sections. And that’s going to be a lot easier to think through when you get started than trying to retrofit accessibility into a site.”
Even if you build for accessibility in the first place, anything you add to the site later must also comply. Judish suggested that associations hire employees who have experience coding to meet WCAG 2.0 standards. Plus, associations can include indemnification clauses or guarantees in contracts to ensure that third-party developers and other vendors build to the standards.
Iglesias, whose company focuses on video accessibility, said there’s a good business case for improving the content accessibility. Particularly for video and audio, adding closed captioning or audio descriptions tends to drive search engine benefits.
“Once you’ve got those closed captions and those transcripts, you can index the content a lot better. So you’re going to have better SEO on your content platform,” she said.
Even people who don’t have a disability benefit from accessible websites. Closed captioning, for example, makes it possible to watch a video with the audio muted. And then, there’s the public relations benefit of providing accessibility wherever possible—especially when going beyond the letter of the law.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Iglesias said.