Digital freedom isn’t free

Nov 03 2021

Thirty-one years ago, the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA, widely regarded as the cornerstone piece of legislation protecting disabled Americans from wrongful discrimination, established a national standard by which people, businesses, and the government are obliged to act in the pursuit of universal equity to access.

ADA compliance, why it’s important

Protected realms and locations were established where disabled individuals would be legally guaranteed equity in access. They include parks, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, and many other physical locations often frequented by Americans. Though the ADA provides a critical step towards protecting disabled Americans from discrimination, it doesn’t do enough in protecting those same people in the world as it is today.

The norm two years ago is nothing like the norm now. COVID-19 has transformed the way Americans engage with their society daily. Despite the enormity of these changes, they pale in comparison to how life has altered between 1990 and today. The biggest change to life has arguably been the introduction of digital spaces and the internet.

In 1990:

  • The first public website had yet to go live on the internet. | Today there are over 1.8 billion websites worldwide.(A)
  • Roughly 15% of American households had a computer.(B) | As of 2018, that number has risen to 92%.(C)
  • The overwhelming majority of Americans did not have access to the internet.(D) | Today 93% of the population of the U.S. uses the internet.(E)
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13.2 million Americans identified as disabled.(F) | Today, that number hovers around 61 million (or roughly 1 in 5 Americans).(G)

While over a quarter of Americans identify as disabled, none of them receive the proper protections from discrimination in the online environment. The ADA hasn’t adapted to life in our current digital society leaving states and individuals to establish legal precedent. As concern over the implications of disability rights in the virtual environment have become increasingly discussed over the last four years, two things have risen: litigation and website spend. Compliance hasn’t improved, and it’s easy to demonstrate failure in 94% of web content.

Let’s get physical

If the ADA is designed to protect disabled Americans from discrimination in places where they engage in everyday life activities, then why do so many American business owners fall short in protecting disabled Americans in the place where most activities for them happen? It’s true that most Americans aren’t aware that this is happening, or even what “this” is. We can put it another way by talking about what Americans know well. Think about the responsibility a grocery store must accommodate for a disabled individual, and then think about how such accommodations would translate to the same activity when conducted on the internet.

You enter a physical grocery store parking lot to see distinctly labelled disabled spaces close to the store which are wide enough for someone with mobility concerns to navigate. The curb cut you see on the sidewalk allows those with wheelchairs to enter through one of the accessible entrances. You get into the grocery store. On one side are specifically designed carts for disabled users to navigate the aisles, they have baskets to hold groceries and enable reaching for items. If you go to the bathroom, you see that the design must be the correct height to be accessible to users. All these accommodations allow a disabled individual to safely navigate the process of grocery shopping, an essential activity for everyday life.

The design of a grocery store has enabled users to conduct the necessary activity of gaining access to food for almost 30 years. In today’s digitized and, due to COVID-19, increasingly isolated world, 34% of Americans are conducting some to most of their grocery shopping online post pandemic (57% of millennials)(H), though estimates at the height of the pandemic reached 80%.(I) But how are online grocery store websites designed today? You might log onto the webpage and, if using a screen reader, none of the information is properly coded to work with screen-to-text software. One might see images with missing alt text, making it nearly impossible for someone using such technology to choose their desired groceries. So why is it that we don’t protect Americans with the same vigor online that we do in the physical realm?

ADA compliance- spend money to save money

One argument which comes up quite often is cost, and specifically organizations treating digital spaces as a one-off expense.

Sure, you can get a domain name for 99c, maybe you can then pay a web developer or agency a fixed amount to design and hand over a snazzy looking site.

Seeing a website as a capital expense which you pay a thousand bucks for and that’s that might be fine for a local tradesman. Bigger businesses though are increasingly seeing the value in ongoing improvements to their digital assets. This is good but more focus and spend doesn’t always lead to more compliance as it’s possible to spend on the wrong areas.

With catalysts like the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more and more spending online, the tipping point of digital spend overtaking in-store spend is approaching faster and faster.

Once half your sales are happening online, having an inaccessible experience which hinders one in five people is just straight up bad for business. If the bricks in your shop or office building cost a thousand dollars a month, and the physical space is making only half of your revenue, spending the same on digital overheads makes perfect sense as a cost analysis.

Spending on digital overheads is already very easy to underestimate. Whilst your domain can cost a dollar a year, it’s easy to forget that if you want anything on your website then you need to host the images and content somewhere. Many CMS vendors package domains, hosting and security certificates together for around a hundred dollars a year. This is the very minimum operational expense to run a basic website, many companies spend much more though- and it makes sense.

Inclusive websites- break a few eggs

On top of the bare minimum operational spend, if you want people to find your site and engage in your services, you will need a digital or marketing team. You can outsource this to an agency or bring staff in house to manage things yourself. Either way, they will have tools and skills to improve your online space, and some will always be better than others in certain areas.

It’s easier to understand restrictions in physical commerce. A contractor could install a ramp so your office is wheelchair friendly, but they wouldn’t be able to sign off their own work. It would need to be inspected by an official.

When it comes to your digital assets, AAAtraq can help with its service, by providing auditing, modelling and protection to reduce your risk. Some expenditures are vital to running the operation, mitigating risk whilst providing a better service is one of them.

Reality check

Whilst compliance is a problem that your digital team will take actions to resolve, non-compliance is a risk to your organization, so responsibility lies with risk managers and senior staff. This is who AAAtraq is aimed at, a top-level overview of the problem, with data and technical work for the digital team. With policies and legislations changing on an almost daily basis as different courts make rulings, this market will continue to evolve. Here are the key takeaways from this article and areas that AAAtraq will cover in greater detail during our upcoming webinar.

  1. ADA compliance litigation is growing exponentially
  2. The rules that apply to physical spaces also apply online
  3. You can’t sign off your own work
  4. Operating online isn’t free and there are ongoing costs
  5. Money alone won’t fix it, it also needs dedicated work
  6. As the market changes, business needs to adapt
  7. Whilst work sits with digital teams, the responsibility sits with senior staff managing risk

(A) Armstrong, Martin. "How Many Websites Are There?." Digital image. August 6, 2021. Accessed October 22, 2021. (opens in a new window)

(B) Bureau of Labor Statistics, 99 Issues in Labor Statistics: Computer Ownership Up Sharply in the 1990s § (1999).

(C) Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2018, April 21, 2021. U.S. Census Bureau. (opens in a new window).

(D) Fox, Susannah, and Lee Rainie. “Part 1: How the Internet Has Woven Itself into American Life.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Pew Research Center, December 31, 2019. (opens in a new window).

(E) “Demographics of Internet and Home Broadband Usage in the United States.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Pew Research Center, April 26, 2021. (opens in a new window).

(F) “Prevalence of Mobility and Self-Care Disability -- United States, 1990.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 8, 1993. (opens in a new window).

(G) Fox, Susannah, and Lee Rainie. “Part 1: How the Internet Has Woven Itself into American Life.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Pew Research Center, December 31, 2019. (opens in a new window).

(H) What Consumers Expect From Their Grocery Shopping Experiences. ACI Worldwide, August 2021. (opens in a new window).

(I) Russell Redman 1 | May 27. “Nearly 80% of U.S. Consumers Shopped Online for Groceries since COVID-19 Outbreak.” Supermarket News, May 27, 2020. (opens in a new window).

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