Web Accessibility: Regulating Ourselves

In my past life in the legal field, I spent one summer poring over the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s Standards for Accessible Design – a manual specifying, often down to the inch, the accessibility requirements for everything from parking spaces to drinking fountains. Barriers to people with disabilities were typically complete oversights: for example, the evenly-spaced cement posts that a grocery store had installed outside its entrance, cleverly designed to keep shopping carts in, also had the unfortunate side-effect of keeping wheelchair users out. That store promptly fixed its embarrassing mistake, but companies continually failing to come into compliance were slapped with a lawsuit.

Web developers are generally not too concerned with ADA compliance. This is because Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits ‘places of public accommodation’ from discriminating against people with disabilities, and courts are not in agreement as to whether or not these ‘places’ include virtual spaces. Currently, only certain government websites are explicitly subject to federal accessibility regulations. That leaves us with the odd situation in which Barnes & Noble clearly must make its buildings accessible, but Amazon.com could potentially be off the hook. 

Despite the lack of clarity, there have been some successful lawsuits against online retailers with inaccessible websites, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has at times stepped in to pursue legal action against private companies. Considering that the purpose of the ADA is to provide people with disabilities with equal access and opportunities, and considering that our lives are increasingly being lived out online, it is not surprising that web accessibility is on the DOJ’s radar. In addition to the civil rights issues, the DOJ classifies web accessibility as an economically significant priority, as it is likely to boost online sales. Regulations are slow in coming, however, as the DOJ has pushed back issuing proposed regulations until March 2015.

Regulation aside, is certainly cringeworthy to consider that, as web developers, we may unintentionally erect barriers just as obnoxious as those cement posts that kept out wheelchair users. For a person with a tremor, precisely positioning a cursor over a tiny button is quite a feat. For someone with a visual impairment, layouts that break upon increasing the font size can make navigating the page a nightmare. My one and only attempt at using a screen reader ended up with me and the blind man I was supposedly helping both throwing up our hands in frustration – the screen reader had dallied over everything on the page, reading irrelevant links, ads, and a myriad of other things before ever reaching the article’s content. 

In a field so concerned with quick turnaround and slick visual presentation – and so dominated by people for whom bifocals are a long way off –  it can be all too easy to let accessibility fall by the wayside. In a followup post, I will explore some practices that can help make websites more accessible to all.

Disclaimer: Obviously, this post is written in general terms and should in no way be construed as legal advice.