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ADA & the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Online

ADA: What is it and what’s my website got to do with it?

Before we can understand how websites may be affected by web accessibility laws and policies, it may help to review a summary of the acts and legislation in place that influence them.

As a very high-level summary – we can first look at the overall scope of how accessibility affects websites and the persons that manage and use them in this way:

ada flowchart

 

What is ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

In other words, the act was a major legislative accomplishment for people with disabilities and their families in the United States, creating a clear national mandate to end the exclusion, stigma, segregation, and the historic patterns of insensitivity and injustice that have led to so many of the barriers facing people with disabilities.

What’s all this have to do with MY website?

Today, everyone needs to access various forms of web pages, applications, and tools for everyday things – like managing a bank account, making a mortgage payment, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, or shopping. Therefore by association – ADA influences web accessibility standards and it absolutely matters.

But interestingly, by law, there is no mention of the WCAG in the 1990 ADA act. The internet didn’t even exist yet, and the birth of internet browsers came even later. The act simply accommodates access for persons with disabilities.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky.

What are WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)?

What you do next will improve the website for EVERYBODY.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is a set of guidelines for making web content accessible to people with disabilities. It was developed by the W3C and published as a Recommendation on May 28, 2008.

W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) works on developing guidelines for improving web content accessibility. The WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. There are levels of conformance. To conform, a Web page must meet all the requirements of the level that it is implementing, as well as all previous levels.

There are three versions of WCAG:

  1. WCAG 2 (Quick Reference)
  2. WCAG 2.1 Standard
  3. WCAG 2.0 Standard

Then, there are three levels of success criteria: A, AA, and AAA

Two additional versions are on their way, with one possibly coming sooner than the other. W3.org will announce when more information is available on WCAG 2.2 and WCAG 3.0. WCAG 3 is currently an incomplete draft. It is intended to develop into a W3C Standard in a few years.

In addition to the guidelines outlined above – some amendments that affect Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (federal) and other state-level acts are equally as important.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the Federal Level

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

While all pages on a website should be accessible, not all need to meet the standards for full accessibility. The agency made an important change by revising its definition of “web page.” Starting with the refresh of Section 508, a web page is defined as a user action that causes content to appear in or move within a frame or window through which users can navigate.

This is an important definition because it allows the agency to include the controls in a webpage that are necessary for access without making them subject to WCAG 2.0 requirements.

Section508.gov, states:

The rule updated and reorganized the Section 508 Standards and Section 255 Guidelines in response to market trends and innovations in technology. The refresh also harmonized these requirements with other guidelines and standards both in the U.S. and abroad, including standards issued by the European Commission, and with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), a globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the State Level

NY Civil Rights Act

Under federal and state law, it is illegal to discriminate against any person with an actual or perceived disability in many contexts of everyday life, including, for example, in public accommodations, housing, employment, voting, and education.

Prohibited disability discrimination describes those situations in which people with disabilities are singled out for different and less favorable treatment. These situations, though not intentionally discriminatory on the part of people without disabilities, have a discriminatory impact on people with disabilities.

Generally, this means that the state of New York adheres to the ADA’s guidelines requiring all businesses that provide public accommodations also do the following:

  1. make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures to afford equal access to people with disabilities
  2. ensure that they can effectively communicate with people with disabilities

California Unruh Civil Rights Act

The Unruh Civil Rights Act is a California statute providing that all people within the jurisdiction of California are free and equal, and no matter what their disability, are entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.

In 1992, the act was amended to provide that “[a] violation of the right of any individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990… shall also constitute a violation of this section.” If an individual makes a claim that they have been denied full and equal access on any occasion, the Plaintiff is entitled to recover actual damages and an amount up to three times the actual damages for each violation.


With the way that the NY and CA acts and federal acts, statutes, and policies are combined – any violation claim(s) submitted by persons with disabilities can be recognized as legally valid, therefore any violations filed against your company can be liable to damages.

But as we learn more and more about accessibility, what it means for people with disabilities, and how recent litigation has been affecting websites – we are fully on board to make changes, adapt, and do the right thing. Even though the idea of facing litigation for non-compliance can be scary, website accessibility is less about the law and more about the people. 

For more information on Civil Rights acts and policies for persons with disabilities visit ADA. gov (beta).

To find out more about accessibility guidelines specific to your state, visit your state and local government websites for additional information.

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