In 1998, the U.S. Government updated Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, requiring federal agencies to make electronic communications accessible to disabled employees and members of the public. Standards created to comply with Section 508 list specific requirements that organizations must meet. Subpart B deals specifically with websites and lists 16 individual requirements.
Section 508 applies only to U.S. Government bureaus, agencies, and organizations. State and local governments and businesses are under no obligation to comply. However, a flurry of lawsuits filed by advocates for the disabled make it clear that current business exemptions from accessibility requirements can't go on forever.
Filers on these cases assert that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the Web since it's a public "space." Businesses should thus be required to make their "space" on the Internet just as accessible as they must make their physical spaces. Recent high-profile settlements involved Target, which paid $6 million in damages and made its website fully accessible, and Netflix, which agreed to provide closed captioning for all streaming movies by 2014.
The Netflix case, though, illustrates the confusion and conflict around website accessibility and the law. It also demonstrates the inevitability of regulation. Two cases were actually filed.
A Massachusetts court decided that Netflix's streaming service was a place of public accommodation -- like a movie theater -- and therefore had to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A California court, however, sided with Netflix's argument that the streaming service is not covered under the ADA and dismissed that particular case.
DoJ Weighing Web Accessibility, Business Impact and Existing (and Obsolete) Standards
In spite of mixed opinions from the courts, the Department of Justice has made it clear that the ADA was intended to adapt to technology. Just because the Web didn't exist when the ADA was enacted in 1990 doesn't automatically make it exempt.
A 2010 DoJ Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking opened up a series of questions for public comment. While some of the nearly 450 comments argued in favor of bringing websites under the ADA, others argued that requiring website accessibility would hurt businesses and others still warned of the threat of drive-by lawsuits against non-compliant sites.
With such strong feelings, with arguments on both sides of the case and with complicated issues to work out, it's easy to see why it's taken so long to get where we are today -- and why it will likely take some time to get past the next step.
That next step is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which is expected to be released in 2013 and to use the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) as its definition of accessibility.
Using WCAG 2.0 makes sense, as it's an existing ISO standard that has been implemented and recommended by many organizations and governments. The Section 508 guidelines, on the other hand, have been showing their age for years. While the Section 508 standard was important and relevant in 1998 and still offers good recommendations, its references to frames, applets, server-side image maps, and blinking make it seem more like a humorous historical document than a real model for a forward-looking (and -thinking) standard.
WCAG 2.0 Goes Beyond Web Accessibility Rules to Provide Recommendations
WCAG 2.0 contains 12 guidelines and testable "success criteria," each of which uses three levels of conformance -- A, AA and AAA -- to denote increasing levels of accessibility. The DoJ's Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned Level AA as a possible standard.
The guidelines are as follows:
Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need (large print, Braille, speech, symbols or simpler language).
Provide alternatives for time-based media.
Create content that can be presented in different ways -- a simpler layout, for example -- without losing information or structure.
Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including separating foreground from background.
Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
Provide users enough time to read and use content.
Don't design content in a way that's known to cause seizures.
Provide ways to help users navigate a site, find content and determine where they are.
Make text content readable and understandable.
Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are based on four principles: Users must be able to perceive, operate and understand the information and user interface controls presented on a website, and content must be accessible using a wide variety of user agents.
Some of these guidelines are similar to Section 508 -- most notably the text alternatives. Others show a more sophisticated, less technology-dependent approach to creating accessibility guidelines.
Related: A Braille Smartphone for the Blind
WCAG doesn't just make general statements, however. The success criteria specify tests that you can use to evaluate existing websites. One prime example is the test for checking text alternatives:
To meet the Level A success criteria, all non-text content (images, video, etc.) that is presented to the user must have a text equivalent. Exceptions are made for CAPTCHAs, purely decorative content and several other cases. Specific situations, such as providing text equivalents for Adobe Flash content and even equivalents for emoticons, ASCII art and leetspeak, are also included.
WCAG 2.0 itself is massive, and the available supporting and explanatory documentation is more massive. There's no doubt that retrofitting existing websites for WCAG 2.0 compliance, should it become mandated, will be complicated and expensive.
Building WCAG 2.0 compliance into new or redesigned sites is much less burdensome, but it will still means additional work and add an additional cost to site creation -- especially for Web developers who may be unfamiliar with the guidelines and the techniques for implementing them.
Most Web Developers Addressing Accessibility Anyway
The long road toward ADA website guidelines has given the Web development world time to get acquainted with accessibility best practices and begin putting them to work. Since the late 1990s, accessibility has also been better integrated into Web standards and browsers. Rather than being something that's tacked on with image alt text when you remember to do so, most basic accessibility techniques are now written as requirements for writing valid HTML5 markup.
The Web development world is voluntarily moving towards better accessibility in several key ways:
Responsive design and mobile-first Web design fulfill all requirements for sites to be adaptable. If you design your sites to be flexible and work on a lowest-common-denominator user agent, you're also designing for accessibility.
Web typography and CSS3 have made obsolete images of text (previously the worst offender against accessibility guidelines).
The days of splash pages are (thankfully) gone.
HTML5 is rapidly making proprietary browser plug-ins unnecessary. Even though it's fully possible to make Java Applets, PDFs, QuickTime videos, Flash and Silverlight accessible, most people don't bother, choosing instead to implement needed functionality using baseline HTML5 markup.
Finally, the Mozilla Foundation will drop support for the < blink > tag in the latest version of Firefox. It joins every other major browser in abandoning a markup element that can induce seizures.
It's been argued -- successfully, in some cases -- that the ADA only applies to physical spaces, not the Web. However, the Web is an essential part of modern life, and many people believe government and business websites should be fully accessible.
Whether applying ADA provisions to websites is the best solution is debatable -- and that debate will be coming soon to a browser near you. Whatever the case, the industry needs to come out in favor of anything that increases accessibility, especially in a way that may be tested empirically.
Chris Minnick runs a Web design and development company and regularly teaches HTML5 classes for Ed2Go. Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer and consultant who specializes in Web markup languages, information security and Windows OSes. Together, Minnick and Tittel are the authors of the forthcoming book Beginning Programming with HTML5 and CSS3 For Dummies as well as numerous other books.