The Department of Justice recently announced its intent to update Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include web accessibility standards. Title II applies to state and local government agencies, but the law’s Title III addresses private businesses. The push to change Title II may seem to suggest that the law isn’t currently concerned with web accessibility. However, court cases surrounding accessibility online have been popping up around the country for years.
Even without a specific online accessibility provision in the law, courts have applied the existing language to virtual spaces. That process can potentially lead to confusion. For today’s businesses, it’s clear that the only way to look at the ADA as it applies to web accessibility is to view it as a floor, not a ceiling.
“Unfortunately, there are still organizations that see the ADA as the be-all end-all and see those requirements as all they need to do,” said Verbit’s Global Head of Accessibility and Inclusion, Scott Ready. As a professional captioning and accessibility company, Verbit works to improve inclusivity at companies worldwide.
For businesses, taking a lax approach to online accessibility isn’t an option. The consequences can be serious, including litigation or damage to their brands. Still, without clear guidance, approaching web accessibility can be challenging. As a result, the smart move for corporations is to take a proactive approach to accessibility and move past the limited guidance the ADA provides.
Proposed changes to Title II of the ADA
The government often takes the lead when it comes to creating new accessibility requirements. In fact, that’s exactly what the Biden Administration did when it chose to set stricter online accessibility standards for the federal government. The executive order looked to the standards in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Although WCAG is not a law, it is a well-respected set of international online accessibility standards. Governments, universities and other organizations rely on the WCAG when creating their own standards.
Making changes to the letter of the law, in this case, the ADA is a more complicated process. The legal system doesn’t adapt as quickly as the tech industry, which can explain part of the discrepancy between accessibility expectations and the ADA. After all, the ADA dates back to 1990 and went into effect just before the public gained access to the internet.
However, it would be a mistake to think that the move to place stricter standards on the government won’t impact private industry. In fact, while the government might need to implement updates sooner, the same expectations will undoubtedly start to filter into other industries.
Already, it’s clear that courts are willing to hold companies responsible, even in the absence of specific web accessibility language in the ADA.
The road to accessibility might run through courthouses
Accessibility in the US often comes by way of litigation. In fact, lawsuits are the ADA’s prescribed remedy for aggrieved parties.
“Oftentimes, adherence to accessibility laws is based on litigation. When organizations experience lawsuits, that prompts other organizations to take the law seriously and adhere to the latest standards,” explained Ready.
Interestingly, even without changes to the law, judges are willing to apply the existing legislation to new scenarios. For instance, the ADA requires equal access for people with disabilities in “places of public accommodation.”
As some courts see it, websites, mobile apps and other virtual spaces are places of public accommodation. Also, what courts expect in those spaces is continuing to change to reflect the situation in the real world.
Why looking to the letter of the law is not enough
Verbit’s Ready has been working in accessibility for decades. According to him, if companies pay attention to trends in accessibility litigation, “it doesn't take long before you start to realize that meeting the letter of the law is not sufficient.”
Ready went on to say, “for example, in the captioning industry, it used to be that lawsuits were filed because captioning was not provided. But now? The lawsuits are including accuracy, including timeliness. And could include other factors that go beyond just is it provided or is it not provided.”
Two high-profile cases showcased this exact trend. Heather York is the VP of Marketing at VITAC, a Verbit Company that provides captioning and accessibility for major media outlets, professional sports and high-profile events like the Oscars. York pointed to the lawsuits that the National Association of the Deaf filed against Harvard and MIT over their poor captioning on public-facing videos.
Those cases were the ones that “proved that just captioning wasn't enough. The captions need to be good quality,” said York.
However, those quality standards still aren’t in the ADA. Apparently, from a litigation perspective, that doesn’t really matter. It’s clear that providing accessibility based on standards from more than 30 years ago is not good enough. Nor should it be.
The benefits of going above and beyond
When businesses choose to focus on improved accessibility, they often find that the new standards aren’t difficult to achieve. Connecting with an accessibility partner like Verbit makes it easy to offer high-quality accessibility solutions. For instance, Verbit uses AI-powered captioning and transcription software and human transcribers to provide these tools quickly and at a high-quality level.
Now that it’s easier to offer accurate captions, Ready said, “the accommodation is being used by more and more people.” Studies show that captions help everyone understand, comprehend and remember information. Captioning is, therefore, becoming a tool that many organizations offer proactively, even if no one requests them.
Additionally, as it turns out, offering accessibility solutions has many other benefits for workplaces and businesses. For instance, accessible workplaces have better retention and productivity.
There are many accessibility considerations beyond captioning to be aware of as well.
Web accessibility resources and tips
Web accessibility involves many steps, and it’s important to consult resources like the most recent version of the WCAG. However, there are a few common issues that everyone should consider.
Captions: Captioning all audio and video content is a must. This need includes offering solutions like captions and transcriptions for podcasts.
Audio description: Audio description is a solution that communicates visual content in a way that people who are blind can understand. This solution makes video content more accessible.
Select colors carefully: Inadequate color contrast on a website can make reading difficult for people with color blindness. Paying attention to colors can help avoid situations where some people can’t navigate the site or app.
Screen reader compatibility: All text and images should be accessible to screen readers. Screen readers make it possible for people who are blind to access online content.
Voice control and access: People with certain mobility disabilities may use voice controls to navigate websites. Online content should work with this technology.
Verbit’s solutions, including captions, transcriptions, notetaking, audio description and translations, help businesses build their accessibility strategies. Find out more about how partnering with Verbit is a great way to boost your online accessibility and inclusivity.