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On this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we take a look back at the history of accessibility in the United States. We then look at the past 20 years and how lawmakers and the World Wide Web Consortium have worked to bring that same level of accessibility to internet users.

Every year, Global Accessibility Awareness Day is celebrated on the third Thursday in May. With this being the 10th anniversary of the holiday, I thought we’d explore the history of accessibility—where the fight for accessibility started, how it’s going for the web, and what it means in your work as a designer or developer (and for the billion people with disabilities or impairments that your digital products might reach).

How Physical Accessibility Laws Laid the Foundation for Digital Accessibility Rights

It’s impossible to understand where we are today in terms of digital accessibility without first looking at the hard-fought road toward physical accessibility.

In the United States, in particular, we’ve had laws going all the way back to the 1700s that protect the rights of disabled individuals. At the time, those rights mainly ensured that people disabled by war were provided with due compensation.

Accessibility legislation has evolved greatly since then. However, when we look back on the last 80 years or so of accessibility-related laws, what we’re really talking about is making public places of accommodation (e.g., hotels, stores, office buildings) physically accessible.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, for instance, dealt with the removal of barriers to entry to federal buildings.

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1970 mandated that every transit vehicle built going forward be equipped with wheelchair lifts.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited federal agencies from discriminating against anyone regardless of disability in a number of ways—including technology.

The Telecommunications for the Disabled Act of 1982 required telephone services to be accessible to hearing-impaired individuals.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1983 required easy access into, out of and around polling places for all voters.

The Fair Housing Act Amendment of 1988 added protections for individuals with disabilities along with requiring owners to make multi-family units accessible.

The Technology-Related Assistance Act of 1988 was implemented in order to raise the public awareness about assistive technologies.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a game changer for civil rights. The overall purpose of the legislation was to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It specifically dealt with accessibility in five areas:

  • Title I: Employment
  • Title II: State and local government services as well as transportation
  • Title III: Places of public accommodation owned and operated by private entities
  • Title IV: Telecommunications
  • Title V: Miscellaneous provisions

The law was expansive and called for the country, its governmental institutions and the businesses operating within it to be readily available and accessible to everyone no matter their disability, impairment or other limitation.

However, this law was drafted in the ’80s and went into effect in 1990. Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1989, but it didn’t go into general use until 1994. To this day, the ADA (specifically, Title III) is the basis for web accessibility lawsuits. The only problem, however, is that neither the ADA nor other official legislation has properly dealt with the matter of digital accessibility.

So, we’re left in a somewhat sticky situation when it comes to designing websites, apps and other digital products for consumers. How are we supposed to know which ones need to be accessible and what kind of accessibility standard we hold them to?

Where We Stand with Digital Accessibility Rights and Standards Today

Berners-Lee (and other early contributors to the web) recognized this glaring gap in the legislation when it comes to accessibility and the internet. As Berners-Lee wrote in a newsletter in 1996:

“The emergence of the World Wide Web has made it possible for individuals with appropriate computer and telecommunications equipment to interact as never before. It presents new challenges and new hopes to people with disabilities.”

This was the start of a collaborative project within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This is what we know today to be the Web Accessibility Initiative. They initially sought to bring together a group of experts and to gather funding to fix the technology powering the web, to make it more accessible.

While the W3C worked steadily behind the scenes on formalizing web accessibility standards and putting together education around it, the U.S. government took baby steps toward addressing the important role the internet had begun to play in our lives.

1998: Section 508 amendment adds digital content to government’s accessibility requirements.

When I mentioned the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 earlier, I emphasized the fact that government agencies could not discriminate against anyone technologically. At the time, this mainly referred to making kiosks and other federal hardware or software accessible to users.

Section 508 was amended in 1998 to expand those accessibility requirements to digital content. So this meant that government agencies and anyone doing business with them had to provide users with accessible digital assets.

1999: WCAG 1.0 provides webmasters, developers, designers and other creators with concrete accessibility guidelines.

The W3C released the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. It included 14 guidelines to help organizations and their developers and designers implement them. For example:

  • Create device-independent interfaces
  • Offer a clear navigation
  • Offer equivalent auditory and visual content alternatives

While Berners-Lee and the W3C knew back then how critical accessible design and development was, they struggled to get organizations onboard with it.

It makes sense really. Considering how young the web was, how could any of us have imagined the huge role it would play in all our lives? What’s more, the matter of accessibility had really only been something we’d recently addressed in the physical world. It’s only natural to expect it to take time in the digital one.

And it did.

2003: DOJ publishes notice to promote state and local government website accessibility.

The Department of Justice published a notice called Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities.

The document explains the importance in designing government websites to be equally accessible to all citizens and the benefits of doing so, and also provides resources to web developers.

This wasn’t a mandate nor was it new legislation. However, it did suggest that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act extended to digital content and that government agencies, in particular, needed to take the matter more seriously.

2008: WCAG 2.0 provides more detailed accessible design guidance plus levels of success criteria.

The W3C released an updated set of guidelines nearly a decade after WCAG 1.0. Considering the big changes that were going on for the web around that time—and that were shortly to come as smartphones became ubiquitous—the revised guidelines were needed.

In addition to revising the foundational guidelines they started with, WCAG 2.0 did a better job of organizing accessible design standards into the following categories:

  • Perceivable – like adding alt text and captions to non-text content
  • Operable – like making a website navigable by keyboard and removing flashing or blinking elements that can induce seizures
  • Understandable – like creating predictable UIs and including error messaging
  • Robust – like adding markup that any device or assistive technology can read

In addition, WCAG 2.0 gave us levels of success criteria:

Level A deals with the minimum basic requirements to make a website or app accessible. For example:

  • Text-based alternatives
  • Captions
  • Use of color
  • Ordering of content
  • Audio control
  • Keyboard access
  • Pause, stop or hide moving elements

Level AA deals with the next level of accessibility compliance. It includes things like:

  • Audio descriptions
  • Color contrast
  • Text resizing
  • Images of text
  • Headings and labels
  • Consistent navigation
  • Consistent identification of UI elements
  • Real-time error feedback

Level AAA is the highest level of accessibility and offers users greater control over the UI. For example:

  • Sign language interpretation for pre-recorded content
  • Enhanced color contrast
  • No elements that flash more than three times
  • Link purpose provided
  • Supplemental info for abbreviations, unusual words, etc.
  • User control over the visual presentation of text
  • User control over interruptions (like pop-ups or auto-playing ads)

Although the WCAG itself is not a legal mandate, you’ll find that there are different levels of success you are advised to meet depending on the type of website or app you build. For example, Section 508 was updated once again in 2017. Federal agencies and contracts were required to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA.

So it’s important to research the current recommendations or requirements for your industry before beginning work on any new product.

2018: DOJ letter to Congress (sort of) clarifies its stance on websites and the ADA.

The mid 2010s was when we began to see a wave of website accessibility lawsuits against companies. Like the 2017 class action lawsuit against Nike for running websites that did not cater to visually impaired users. Five Guys was sued in 2017 for a similar reason.

In 2018, Winn-Dixie became the first company to go to trial over a website inaccessibility issue. The district court ruled that not only was the Winn-Dixie website inaccessible to visually impaired users like the plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil, but that it was covered under Title III because the website was heavily integrated with the physical stores.

The DOJ stepped in to provide an update on where it stands with regards to the ADA and websites around the same time. The only problem is that the update still left the issue murky. Here’s a snippet from the letter to Congress:

“The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.

“Additionally, the Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements. Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

Basically, the letter says that, yes, public places of accommodation (like shops, hotels, etc.) should make their websites and apps just as accessible as their physical establishments. However, if they don’t make them digitally accessible, you can’t sue them for noncompliance if their physical structures are compliant.

The ruling against Winn-Dixie ended up being overturned in 2021 by the Eleventh Circuit as the judge believed that websites aren’t places of public accommodation per the ADA. It’s no surprise to see the ruling overturned in light of the DOJ’s wishy-washy stance on web accessibility. The same goes for the many lawsuits lost by plaintiffs since then for this very reason.

2018: WCAG 2.1 updates success criteria for mobile.

While the WCAG already included guidance for mobile accessibility, its guidelines got another update as smartphones became the predominant device used to access the web. WCAG 2.1 addresses matters related to the following:

  • Screen orientation
  • Input field purpose
  • Content reflow
  • Text spacing
  • Content on hover or focus
  • Mobile keyboard accessibility
  • Target size
  • And more

WCAG 2.1 became the default recommendation starting in 2018. So, if your web design process doesn’t account for the mobile accessibility guidelines, it’s time to make that update.

2017-2020: 8K+ digital accessibility lawsuits filed in federal courts.

According to the American Bar Association, there were more than 8,000 digital accessibility lawsuits filed—just in federal courts. The ABA says there have been vastly more lawsuits at the state level. However, they don’t receive as much attention since they tend to get resolved before they ever get filed.

The ABA now sees over 10,000 of these lawsuits every year. They make up roughly a fifth of all ADA Title III lawsuits.

According to the ABA, the cost of litigating one of these cases tends to be much more expensive than the cost to settle—which often is the cost to make one’s website or app accessible.

If that’s the case, then you have to wonder why any organization would make that gamble with their site or app, especially if they operate a physical place of accommodation. For smaller businesses, it might seem like a gamble worth taking. For larger organizations that have the dough to spend on making a website fully accessible, why not just make it part of the initial build?

It’s something to think about if you design websites and apps for these larger enterprises who are more likely to be targeted with a Title III lawsuit.

2020: The Online Accessibility Act is introduced to the House of Representatives.

Representative Budd—the recipient of the 2018 DOJ letter—sponsored a bill in 2020 called The Online Accessibility Act. Here’s the gist of the bill:

“Specifically, the bill prohibits the exclusion of an individual, by reason of disability, from participation in or being denied the full and equal benefits of the services of such a website or application or from being subjected to discrimination by a private owner or operator of such a website or application.

“Such a website or application shall be considered compliant if it is in substantial compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level A and Level AA standard established by the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. A noncompliant entity shall provide an alternative, equivalent means of access by individuals with disabilities. The Access Board must publish related standards.”

Haven’t heard of this bill? That’s because nothing happened with it in 2020. That doesn’t mean that Budd and other supporters in Congress of digital accessibility completely forgot about it.

In February 2021, the bill was reintroduced. If passed, the bill would remove the DOJ from issuing guidance (as loose and confusing as it was) and give the power to the U.S. Access Board, which would create official standards.

As far as I can tell, the bill has stalled again, which is a shame. While the WCAG is a useful reference for web designers and developers as they build products for the web, there’s no enforcement of these guidelines. Nor much of a penalty for those who ignore them altogether.

2022: Google says accessibility isn’t a ranking signal.

Google’s John Mueller was recently asked whether or not accessibility is a ranking factor in Google search results. After all, the 2021 Core Web Vitals update included Accessibility as one of the four scoring factors.

According to Mueller:

“So I think accessibility is something that is important for a website, because if you drive your users away with a website they can’t use, then they’re not going to recommend it to other people. But it’s not something that we would pick up and use as a direct ranking factor when it comes to search.”

The issue, according to Mueller, is that accessibility cannot be quantified. If they can flesh it out a bit more, then they may consider adding it as a ranking signal in the future. For now, though, it doesn’t appear to have much of an effect other than creating a poor experience for some users.

All the same, that’s something to consider. Accessibility is important enough that Google flagged it in one of its biggest updates in years. Even if they can’t create a weighted scale for how accessible one website is over another, it does still matter in the grand scheme of things.

If there are about a billion users in the world who are disabled, think about the impact an inaccessible site or app will have on them. And it’s not just them to think about. What about something as innocuous as someone riding the subway who doesn’t have headphones. They really want to read the articles on your site, but auto-playing video ads keep popping up and driving their neighbors crazy.

We know what it takes to make a UI accessible and the tools and standards to do it. Inaccessibility—whether it renders a website unusable or simply inconvenient—is inexcusable in this day and age.

Wrapping Up

I realize this isn’t the most positive note to end on. But that’s part of the reason why I brought up the history of physical accessibility legislation. If you think about it, it took roughly 30 years to get this country fully up to speed when it comes to making our physical structures and services accessible—and we’re still far from perfect.

I hope it doesn’t take that long for digital accessibility, but it might considering how slowly lawmakers seem to move. But the good news is that we don’t need to wait for Congress or the DOJ to write digital accessibility into law or for Google to punish or penalize inaccessibility. We have the W3C, WAI and WCAG 2.0/2.1 to provide us with all the guidelines and standards we need to create a better and more equal web.

About the Author

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.

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