In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act. This expanded on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination against disabled individuals at public facilities.
A quick note here: “disability” is an extremely broad word. It has different definitions in different contexts. For example, in workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability matters, a “disability” is any condition which substantially impairs daily functions. Furthermore, “disability” is not just a medical term. The word also has educational, vocational, and other implications.
But when we’re discussing ADA website compliance, “disability” has a more limited meaning. Any accommodations need to be “reasonable” and assist visitors with hearing or vision impairments, as well as physical disabilities that limit use of their hands.
The problem is that no one is sure what exactly constitutes a “reasonable website accommodation.” Since the ADA was signed before the Internet Age, did not address the issue at all. In the ensuing decades, the Department of Justice has issued several statements on website compliance. The rules were essentially policy recitations, and the promised standards never materialized.
So what are the requirements for ADA compliance for websites?
Basic Requirements for ADA Compliant Websites
The first step on this journey is to determine if your law firm must comply with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This section governs disabled access to public accommodations and facilities, a category which clearly includes internet sites. The basic qualifications seem rather simple. The ADA applies if a business:
- Has at least fifteen employees, and
- Operates at least twenty weeks a year
A few small law firms, mostly semi-retired individuals or lawyers who are just getting started, may not meet the twenty week requirement.
The big one is the fifteen employee requirement. Generally, this definition means fifteen full-time, W-2 employees. Lawyers usually do not count toward this number, unless they are associates. Partners, owners, and members are not counted as employees. Furthermore, many support staffers are independent contractors or part-time workers, who also do not count toward the minimum of 15 employees.
Therefore, it is entirely possible that a law firm does not legally have to abide by the ADA requirements for websites. Still, making efforts to comply is in your practice’s best interest as it protects you from potential lawsuits and improves the user experience for visitors with disabilities.
ADA Website Compliance Law
As mentioned, there is basically no federal law in this area at this time. This has led to a number of lawsuits. So while there are a number of cases to examine, there is very little established law. Robles v. Domino’s is one of the rare exceptions.
In Robles v. Domino’s, the plaintiff filed suit claiming that their website and app were not compatible with his screen-reading software, which he commonly used with other sites. His inability to use screen-reading software that worked with other websites made it clear that the problem was with the Domino’s website.
Domino’s successfully filed a motion to dismiss the case. In January 2019, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the lack of DOJ rules did not relieve Domino’s, or any other company, of its access responsibilities under Title II. The ADA mandate, which is to “provide the blind with effective communication and full and equal enjoyment of its products and services,” still applies.
Domino’s isn’t the only major company in hot water, though. Fox News, Burger King, Harvard University, and Beyonce have all faced similar actions. At the time this blog post was written, these lawsuits were either settled out of court or are still pending.
ADA Compliant Website Checklist
So, we know two things for sure: businesses that meet the ADA requirements must make their websites accessible to disabled individuals, and that access must be reasonable. This has left many lawyers and business owners wondering how to make their site more accessible. Luckily, there are several things you can do to make your site easier for visitors with disabilities:
- Alt Tags: Alt tags are short phrases read by screen readers that describe pictures, videos, audio files, and other website items for the visually impaired. Since they are search engine friendly, alt tags are also useful internet marketing tools. Here is what your alt tags on images should look like:
- Text Transcript: This feature is similar to alt tags, but text transcripts are transcriptions of audio or video files specifically designed for hearing-impaired users. Since hearing loss is quite common, law firms should consider using text transcripts.
- Contrasting Colors: Make sure that the colors used on your website, especially with fonts and backgrounds, have enough contrast. Colors that are too similar can be unreadable by those with colorblindness.
- Label Form Fields: When form field labels are located inside the field, like the example on the left, screen readers have a hard time reading them and may miss them entirely. Place field labels outside of the fields, like the form on the right.
- Keyboard Navigation: Many users with disabilities do not use a mouse to navigate and rely on their keyboard. Make sure that your site is accessible, even without a mouse. Below are the keys that are used most commonly in keyboard navigation.
- Esc to cancel an action or leave a window
- Tab to move between tabs in a browser
- Backspace to return to the previous page
- The arrow keys to move around a page
These fixes may or may not make your website 100% ADA compliant, but they will certainly improve the user experience for visitor with disabilities and deter potential lawsuits.