The web continues to evolve into dynamic environment that effects all aspects of our society, from online commerce to government services. Let's explore the development of accessibility laws and how they interact with web application development.
This is the part where I issue the disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. This is a collection of information that I have found while working with accessibility. Please consult with an actual lawyer if you have any specific legal questions.
The web continues to evolve from merely providing useful but essentially static information to a place where dynamic applications are widely present. This shift has spread to all aspects of our society and we now have online commerce (Amazon… need I say more?), online banking, online education (from product training to actual degree programs), online government (services, communication, applications, and even voting), and more including the delivery of basic communications and services.
Along with this evolution has come a general awareness of the need to structure these services in such a way that they can be used by those with various disabilities. Laws and guidelines have been put in place by world-wide organizations like the United Nations as well as individual governments and even industries.
In 1982 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the World Programme for Action (WPA) concerning Disabled Persons. This was a global strategy to enhance disability prevention, rehabilitation, and the equalization of opportunities. The key here is the “equalization of opportunities.”
The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the UN in 1993, specifically added that the member states’ action programmes should include:
“Support for the use of new technologies and the development and production of assistive devices, tools and equipment and measures to facilitate access to such devices and equipment for persons with disabilities to enable them to gain and maintain employment”
These actions both reflect and helped drive further awareness of the need to provide access to technology, although at that time the full range of opportunities with the internet was still in the future.
Country and State Accessibility
There have been a number of standards created that describe policies and procedures to use when making the web more accessible. Most of these were sponsored by various governments, but the most widely used came from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is an international organization dedicated to developing open standards for the web.
The W3C lists 40 countries that have adopted governmental policies related to web accessibility and this is not even a complete list. Many use standards that they have developed, but many also have standardized on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which is the standard developed by the WAI. The WCAG has been approved as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). The WCAG is currently at rev 2.1 which was released in June of 2018. The WCAG is, by itself, a voluntary standard, but it has been referenced by a number of laws on accessibility.
The United Kingdom, for example, passed the Equality Act of 2010, which is a non-discrimination law that applies to both the public and private sections and is similar to the American ADA. The law is a broad non-discrimination law that replaces a number of earlier individual non-discrimination laws. It covers discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and, of course, disabilities. This law does not directly specify the WCAG (or any other standard), but the UK Government Service Manual’s section on accessibility and assisted digital does specifically require WCAG 2.1 compliance for all government web sites.
Web Accessibility in the United States
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to prohibit discrimination based on disabilities. This was an extension to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics. The ADA made it also illegal to discriminate based on disability. What’s more, it required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and it places accessibility requirements on public accommodations. The bill was later amended in 2008 with those changes going into effect in 2009.
In addition to the ADA, there are a number of other laws in the US that cover accessibility in various circumstances, including several sections of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, Section 225 of the Communications Act, and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, and more. In addition to that, a number of states have passed laws concerning accessibility as well. If that all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. However, the WCAG, when not specifically adopted, is generally considered to meet or exceed all of these requirements. And this is a good time to remind you that this is not legal advice and you should seek legal counsel if you have questions.
The other standard that you might hear about is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mentioned above. The Rehabilitation Act was amended in 1998 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities and was further updated in 2018 to meet evolving standards. Section 508 is now based on the WCAG 2.0 guidelines.
The Law in Action
We’ve taken a quick look at some of the laws that have developed concerning accessibility and websites. This can be confusing and unless you really know what you are doing in this area, it’s a very good idea to engage the services of a company that does have accessibility expertise to at least help train you dev team and review your work. In general, conforming with the WCAG will be a good start. But do you really need to worry about it, especially if you are not doing business with the government? The answer is a very clear “yes,” as a number of recent legal cases have shown.
According to a search of court cases conducted by Minh N. Vu, Kristina M. Launey & Susan Ryan of the law firm Seyfarth & Shaw, the number of lawsuits about website accessibility nearly tripled from 2017 to 2018 and hit a total of 2258 cases.
Some of these cases have received public attention as well and highlight not only the growing need to adhere to accessibility standards, but also the ongoing work that needs to be done in establishing clear rules. A recent case involving Domino’s Pizza saw the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issue a ruling that overturned a district courts dismissal of a suite in the favor of accessibility. The Ninth Circuit held that the ADA applies to services of a place of public accommodation, not just services in a place of public accommodation. Their customers access the website away from the physical location (the pizza shop). The initial suit claimed that Dominos website did not work with the customer’s reader software and so he could not order a pizza from them. This was argued to be a violation of the ADA…
Dominos website was weak in accessibility, and that limited access to their pizza services. Note that this is not the end of the case, and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling simply means the suit can continue now. But it is still a victory for accessibility.
Learn More about Accessibility
We have created a comprehensive whitepaper on accessibility for developers that covers everything from laws to coding to testing.
Download the whitepaper: Accessibility for Developers
Adding Accessibility to Your Apps
One easy way to make sure that you are creating accessible web apps is to start with components from the Kendo UI libraries. Our components are all WCAG compliant and give you great functionality from grids and charts to schedulers and pickers. Get a head start on your app's UI and a head start on accessibility compliance at the same time.
Learn more about: Kendo UI