Website ADA Compliance Challenges
Travis Thompson, Director of Risk Management // Hylant Administrative Services
Since the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, any program receiving federal financial assistance must provide access to its services to all, regardless of any disability on the part of the user. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 further strengthened the prohibition of discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. Most saw improvements such as the removal of physical barriers preventing access to those with disabilities. Widening of doorways, installation of elevators and chairlifts, introduction of audible crosswalk signals and the pouring of new sidewalk slopes were all typical projects in public spaces focused on improving access.
While many public buildings are far more accessible today, people with disabilities continue to struggle with access to many of today’s digital services. Access is viewed by many as the ability to physically, freely enter a brick-and-mortar space. With many of today’s public services now being housed in the virtual world, the definition of access must include the ability of all people to freely access not only brick-and-mortar, but the virtual world as well.
Public schools and municipalities are turning to the Internet to quickly and efficiently provide detailed, up-to-the-minute, critical information on their websites. Unfortunately, these same websites are assuming that the general audience possesses the innate ability to navigate the information contained on the page. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently received hundreds of complaints regarding public school websites that discriminate against people with disabilities for the following issues:
- Some important content of the website could only be accessed by people who can use a computer mouse, which meant that content was not available to those who are blind, who have low vision, and those with disabilities affecting fine motor control.
- Parts of the website used color combinations that made text difficult or impossible for people with low vision to see.
- Videos were not accurately captioned, so they were inaccessible to people who are deaf.
To better define what access to the virtual world means, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was recently amended (January 2017) to include accessibility requirements for information and communication technology. Included in the amendment was information specific to the inclusion of alternative text for images contained in websites to convey the purpose, function or content of the image.
To date, the OCR has reached settlements with education organizations in seven states to ensure website accessibility and continues to investigate hundreds of complaints. School districts and public entities receiving federal financial assistance are strongly encouraged to review their current website for compliance with the new standards contained in amended Section 508, which becomes law January 18, 2018.