Do laws relating to website and online accessibility affect my organization?

Dec 20 2022

One question that organizations often ask is whether laws relating to website and online accessibility can be applied to them. There can be misconceptions that somehow if an organization is of a particular size or in particular sector, it means they are exempt. The truth is that there are virtually no exemptions – the law affects every organization in the US.

In this article we’re going to explore how laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means that all organizations must ensure their websites are accessible to people living with disabilities.

The law affects everybody

The most significant legislation relating to website and online accessibility is ADA. This is a civil rights law that “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public”. The law guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.

Because a website is by definition, open to the general public, it means the ADA covers any organization in the US that has a website. The law doesn’t distinguish between different sectors, organizational sizes or other circumstances – your organization’s website cannot discriminate against people living with disabilities. There are legal firms that recognize this, and subsequently ADA demand letters (opens in a new window) are being sent out every day to organizations right across the US.

Are there any exemptions?

There are not really any exemptions from the law. However, there is a ruling (Martinez vs Cot’n Wash (opens in a new window)) that suggests an online-only business, with no physical premises that can be visited by the public, does not have to makes its website accessible. While this is an anomaly that is still being clarified, it makes little very little sense for an online business to ignore accessibility.

Discriminating against people with disabilities is clearly wrong from an ethical standpoint, but also potentially damaging for an organization’s reputation. The infamous case involving Domino’s (opens in a new window) not having an accessible website and app dragged on for years, generating a lot of negative publicity.

Not addressing website accessibility also makes no commercial sense, with people living with disabilities making up a more than quarter of the US adult population (opens in a new window). If you run an e-commerce site that cannot be properly used by 26% of your potential buying audience, then you operate at a significant disadvantage.

What about the non-profit, public and educational sectors?

The public sector, non-profits and educational establishments are also not exempt from the law relating to web and online accessibility. With a public-facing role and values that support inclusivity, accessibility should always be a priority on any public-facing website, app or other digital service. However, it must also be a priority from a legal perspective too.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies (and also organizations funded by or working with an agency) to make their technologies accessible. In practice this means all government agencies, federally-funded non-profits, public higher education institutions and public K-12 schools need to ensure that websites and digital services are accessible to people living with disabilities. Updates to the act have also specified the level of compliance that needs to be reached relates to WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Even without Section 508, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers public sector organizations by default.

There are additional items to consider for the educational sector. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act means that schools and colleges that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency must not discriminate against people living with disabilities participating in an educational program.

There are also some specific State-level regulations relating to accessibility:

  • The UNRUH act in California, impacting all organizations
  • HB-1100 in Colorado, requiring public and local entity to comply with web accessibility standards

In addition, there are specific accessibility guidelines applicable to institutions that fall under the jurisdiction of the NY State Depart of Education. On any given day, ADA demand letters are being sent to public sector organizations, non-profits and educational establishments throughout the US. Often with less budget available, public sector or school websites are a soft target for those looking to profit from the ADA and related legislation.

The law affects us all

Online accessibility is a topic that impacts every organization in the United States. You need to take action to both ensure your website doesn’t discriminate against people living with disabilities, as well as reduce the risks associated with not being compliant.

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