Building web sites that are accessible to visitors with disabilities has become increasingly important in the past decades. In 1998, eight years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act requiring that federal agencies make their information technology accessible. The amendment, commonly known as Section 508, is one of the few pieces of legislation to address accessibility.
Accessibility vs. Usability
Distinct from usability, where the aim is to create sites that are intuitive, well-organized and otherwise easy to use by the average person, accessibility refers specifically to ensuring that web sites are usable for people with disabilities. In particular, accessibility seeks to address the following conditions:
- Visual impairment: may be blindness but also includes low vision and certain types of color blindness. Specific to visual issues, several technologies exist to provide screen reading and braille output of web pages and many accessibility techniques are aimed at facilitating those tools.
- Hearing impairment: if a site makes extensive use of video or other types of content that rely on audio, it is important for accessibility reasons that they also offer transcripts or closed caption for that content.
- Mobility issues: including those caused by Parkinson’s disease, MS, stroke or other conditions leading to reduced motor control. Think of complex interactions like sliders, scrolling content or even small buttons on mobile.
Legal requirements aside, a large business providing access to the disabled makes good business sense:
- 28,000,000 (10% of population) are deaf or hearing impaired.
- 11,400,000 people have visual conditions not correctable by glasses.
- 6,400,000 new cases of eye disease occur each year.
- 2,800,000 people are visually handicapped from color blindness.
- 1,100,000 people are legally blind.
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Target Corporation Lawsuit
On February 7, 2006, the National Federation of the Blind sued Target Corporation, claiming its website violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Target moved to dismiss the case, claiming its brick and mortar stores are accessible to the blind, and that civil rights laws apply to the accessibility of its stores. However, on September 7, 2006, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that a retailer may be sued if its website is inaccessible to the blind, stating that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination in the “enjoyment of goods, services, facilities or privileges.” Until this ruling, commercial websites were not considered a place of accommodation and were assumed to not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Target responded by claiming, “We believe our website complies with all applicable laws and are committed to vigorously defending this case. We will continue to implement technology that increases the usability of our website for all our guests, including those with disabilities.” Target argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was intended to apply to physical accommodations instead of cyberspace, and that such application of the California acts on accessibility would violate the United States Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
The court held that certain online retailers must provide access to the disabled, certifying a class action against Target on behalf of blind Internet customers throughout the country. The court previously denied Target’s motion to dismiss and upheld NFB’s argument that websites like Target.com must be accessible to the blind under both California law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (contributors)
Target ultimately settled for $6m plus $3.7m in fees and costs. The case helped establish that certain online retailers must provide access to the disabled.
Regulations and Guidelines
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The ADA does not specifically address web site accessibility; rather it broadly prohibits discrimination based on disability.
The task of creating accessible websites is somewhat complicated by the fact that there is no single authoritative source for guidelines. However, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are widely considered to be as close to an official standard as exists. Section 508 largely overlaps with WCAG 1.0 and implementing the two sets of guidelines together will result in a highly accessible web site.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
In 1999, the Web Accessibility Initiative, which is a project of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), published the WCAG 1.0m containing a series of guidelines for creating accessible web sites. The guidelines contain three priority levels:
- Priority 1: Web developers must satisfy these requirements; otherwise it will be impossible for one or more groups to access the Web content. Conformance to this level is described as A.
- Priority 2: Web developers should satisfy these requirements; otherwise some groups will find it difficult to access the Web content. Conformance to this level is described as AA or Double-A.
- Priority 3: Web developers may satisfy these requirements, in order to make it easier for some groups to access the Web content. Conformance to this level is described as AAA or Triple-A.
In 2008, the W3C released a new version of the WCAG. Either set of guidelines may be used, and WCAG 2.0 uses the same three levels of compliance, but has redefined portions of them. The W3C recommends that new content should be developed in accordance with version two, however many accessibility checking tools and much relevant legislation still use version one as their point of reference.
Section 508 is the common name for a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act mandating that all federal agencies and other groups receiving federal funding make their electronic systems and information accessible to the disabled.
- Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, not part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
- Section 508 does not only apply to federal agencies. Section 508 applies to all federal agencies and any entity that receives federal funding, which could include public universities.
- Although Section 508 is not part of the ADA, some courts have ruled an entity subject to the ADA mandating the disabled have equal access could require developers to implement the guidelines laid out in Section 508.
If reading everything above has your head spinning a bit and asking “why bother?” (aside from potential legal implications), consider that designing an accessible website covers multiple bases.
As you make your way through Section 508 and WCAG guidelines you’ll consistently come across things like:
- Structure content that is well-organized and easy to read.
- Descriptive page titles.
- Proper use of headings, make sure that link text is descriptive and don’t have any “dead” links.
- Images and other visual content that have text alternatives.
If the list above looks like the beginning of an SEO checklist, you’re absolutely right; and while accessibility and usability are not synonymous, creating content that is intuitive, easy to use and content that is accessible very often employ the same techniques.
- WCAG 2, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/REC-WCAG20-20081211/
- Section 508, http://www.section508.gov/
National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation. (2013, February 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:28, October 29, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=National_Federation_of_the_Blind_v._Target_Corporation&oldid=538114806