NATIONAL REPORT—In the nearly 30 years since the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, businesses have worked to follow the guidelines to make sure that they are compliant with the law.
For company websites, which came to prominence after the act was passed, it seems as though there are more questions than definitive answers when it comes to ADA compliance.
Right now, there are no official government standards for website compliance. “Initially, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that they were going to have some rules about ‘places of accommodation,’” said Hutch Hicken, president/chief technology officer of BlueToad, a digital publishing platform that has created an accessible content service. “There have been questions about what the law means online; the DOJ was going to promulgate some rules.” But, he said, at the end of 2017, the DOJ indicated that wouldn’t happen.
Although there is a lack of definitive standards, companies still must protect themselves from lawsuits from those claiming that a company’s website does not accommodate a plaintiff’s needs.
Hicken said that courts want to see that companies are making an attempt to make accommodations on their websites. “Technically, there aren’t any regulations, but the courts seem to be focusing on this WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standard that is something that is developed, maintained and promulgated by WC3 (World Wide Web Consortium), an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that makes web standards,” he said. “They give you technical guidance as to how you can make your website work with all of those different kinds of needs people might have.”
But, he said, that standard isn’t crystal clear. “There are some things that are left open to interpretation, so what might be compliant in the eyes of one person is not compliant in the eyes of somebody else,” he said. “This cottage industry has grown up of certification or compliance testers. They certify you as compliant with WCAG. They themselves aren’t governed by any other body—they are just out there, hanging up their shingle and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll certify you as compliant.’”
This enables companies to show that they’re making a good-faith effort to be compliant. “That is what the courts have signaled they are looking for,” he said. “If you are trying to hit this standard, and you have gone through the trouble of trying to get some third party to verify that you are hitting that standard, I think that is as good as you can get right now.
“It is a bizarre situation,” he added. “It is a ‘Do the best you can in good faith.’”
Paul DeHart, BlueToad CEO, said that the rules can apply for a variety of impairments. “Anybody who is visually impaired, who can’t hear, who might have color blindness or vision issues, or if they are epileptic and there are flashing lights—those all fall within the gamut of ADA compliance,” he said. “For example, a website has to have enough contrast between the text and the backdrop that the text is over. It also has to be navigable by keyboard, so if you are blind or low vision, you’ll use a combination of hitting the tab key and space key on the keyboard to navigate around a page as it is read out loud to you by software. Configuring a website so all of that works as expected is not just a straightforward thing.”
He said that any item that is online must be compliant in some form. “One thing that we focus a lot on is providing a textual equivalent to a non-text element,” he said. “When we are looking at elements that are in these pieces of content, maybe there are certain images that are important. Websites should have those textual descriptions of those images in a way where someone with a visual disability hears what that image looks like. Those are the baseline elements as you go about trying to be compliant.”
BlueToad worked with Historic Hotels of America on making its online directory usable for people with impairments. “The whole industry is grappling with the interpretation of the question,” said Lawrence P. Horwitz, executive director, Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide. “The work Historic Hotels of America does with BlueToad is to produce a digital version of our Historic Hotels of America annual directory that can be viewed and read by someone who has a visual impairment or a disability where they need another way of reading our directory.”
Making sure that his website meets regulations—whatever they may be—is important to Horwitz. “Unless you are running a hotel in Antarctica, it is very present in all of the trades and all of the newspapers,” he said. “I expect today that everybody in the hospitality industry is aware of the importance of meeting the regulations. We rely on our partners to help us achieve compliance or, more importantly, to meet the then-current regulations.” HB