Welcome to our informational series on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Over the course of this series, we will clearly explain what the ADA is, who must comply, and what it means to comply in the digital world. Finally, we will present you with actionable steps you can take today to begin your journey to stress-free compliance with the ADA.
In this first installment, we’ll focus on:
- The ADA And the Internet: What is the Americans with Disabilities Act? How is it applied to websites?
- Understanding Web Accessibility: What does web accessibility really mean? Why does it matter?
- Benefits of Compliance: What real-world benefits will I see from ADA compliance?
- Consequences of Non-Compliance: What legal and reputational risks do I incur through non-compliance?
The full series includes:
- Web Accessibility Basics (You Are Here): Unpack the basics of web accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how those concepts relate to your business.
- What it Means to Be Accessible: Dive into what it really means for a business to be accessible, what that means for your website, and how it relates to your customers.
- Practical Steps Towards Accessibility: Learn how you can begin enhancing your website’s accessibility, reducing your legal risk, and earning new business.
So, stick around – together, we will make the web a more inclusive place!
The ADA and the Internet
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands as a cornerstone in civil rights legislation. Enacted in 1990, the ADA originally aimed to shield individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all facets of public life. However, with the advent of the digital revolution, the ADA’s influence has extended into the realm of the internet – a shift of monumental significance for today’s businesses.
We are increasingly reliant on the internet, utilizing it for everything from shopping and socializing to working and accessing vital services. As our lives unfold more and more in these digital spaces, the notion of “public life” has evolved to include them. In response to this shift, modern interpretations of the ADA have expanded to encompass web presences, making digital accessibility a crucial consideration for businesses.
The landmark lawsuit against retail giant Target in 2006 set the stage for a new era, heralding the ADA’s applicability to websites. It is now widely accepted that the ADA requires businesses to ensure their digital offerings are accessible to all users. Since then, this precedent has been routinely leveraged both to compel compliance and punish non-compliance.
Understanding the requirements of the ADA is crucial for nearly any business with a digital footprint, as the fines and lawsuits faced by non-compliant companies can be catastrophic. Contrary to popular belief, most businesses with offline ADA obligations also have online obligations! All companies that serve the public (“public accommodations”), as well those with 15 or more full-time employees, must be compliant with the ADA.
Despite the potential for dire consequences, the Americans with Disabilities Act can be a critical guidepost for your business as you expand and refine your digital presence. The internet is deeply intertwined with modern everyday life, and ensuring web accessibility is more than just an ethical imperative – it is a key component of engaging with your customers and generating revenue.
In the next section, we’ll delve deeper into the concept of web accessibility, what it really means, and why it’s so crucial.
Understanding Web Accessibility
Web accessibility is a broad discipline aimed at making the digital world user-friendly and inclusive for everyone, including those with disabilities. This entails the creation of websites, tools, and technologies that are inclusive and accessible to people across diverse hardware, software, languages, locations, and abilities.
When a website is correctly designed, developed and edited, all users can have equal access to information and functionality. To give just a few examples, a highly accessible website will include features such as:
- Textual alternatives to visual content (for the visually impaired)
- Content that can be presented in different ways without losing meaning (for cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities)
- Content that can be navigated with just the keyboard (for those who can’t use a mouse).
- Content that can be viewed in a variety of environments, such as high sunlight
The Americans with Disabilities Act is naturally focused on people with disabilities and, given the potential for earth-shifting fines, much attention is rightly paid to the serious ramifications that can accompany non-compliance. However, a focus on web accessibility is also an important aspect of supporting the growth and sustainability of your business as a whole. In the next section, we will dive deeper into a few of the many ways your business can benefit from a highly accessible website.
Benefits of Compliance
Complying with ADA regulations and championing web accessibility can seem daunting, but it is more than a legal mandate – it is a significant business advantage. By enhancing your website’s accessibility, you’re not just evading potential legal issues; you’re connecting with new markets, fortifying your brand, and adeptly managing business risks. Below, we will explore these compelling advantages.
Business Growth and Market Reach
Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability; without proper accommodations, these tens of millions of individuals would be unable to fully navigate everyday life or participate in their local and national economies. By ensuring your website is accessible, you cater to this substantial demographic, thereby expanding your market reach.
Accessible websites also tend to be more user-friendly and performant, promoting customer loyalty and repeat business. An accessible website does more than just cater to people with disabilities; it caters to people of varying needs and situations. A few quick examples include:
- Anybody on a slow internet connection, such as those on a slow mobile data connection
- New or infrequent internet users, such as those with infrequent access to technology
- People using alternative devices, such as those using smart watches
- People with “temporary disabilities,” such as those with injuries or who have lost their glasses
Reputation and Brand Presence
Embracing web accessibility communicates to the public that you value inclusivity and a commitment to equality. It not only positions your brand favorably in the marketplace but also aligns with the contemporary expectations of corporate social responsibility. A user-friendly website is a vital aspect of your engagement with the public, and accessibility is a critical first step towards genuine user friendliness. Accessible websites often showcase thoughtful design, clear navigation, and readable text – all elements that significantly enhance a website’s user experience. These positive interactions lead to happier customers and, in turn, amplify your brand presence in the digital world.
Legal Compliance and Risk Management
While the necessity to adhere to sometimes-challenging regulations may feel burdensome, legal compliance also offers opportunities. It enables businesses to participate confidently in the public sector, apply for government grants, and cater to a broader customer base without the fear of breaching ADA requirements.
Consequences of Non-Compliance
For many businesses, including small businesses, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) isn’t optional – it’s a legal necessity. Ignoring this requirement can result in serious consequences, impacting not only a company’s reputation but also its financial health.
Who Must Comply?
The ADA applies to all the following business types:
- Public Accommodations (businesses that are open to the public), regardless of business size. While by no means exhaustive, a few examples include:
- Retail Stores
- Auditorium, Theaters, and Sports Arenas
- Service Centers (regardless of industry)
- Healthcare Facilities
- All businesses with 15 or more full-time employees that operate for 20 or more weeks per year
Legal & Financial Penalties
ADA non-compliance can result in hefty legal penalties. The Department of Justice (DOJ) can impose fines of up to $75,000 for a first violation and a staggering $150,000 for subsequent violations.
In addition to the possibility of government fines, businesses may face significant legal fees and settlement costs in the civil sector. Civil legal activity regarding web accessibility has skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in thousands of annual lawsuits filed. Additionally, you may face costly legal pressures even preceding a potential lawsuit, as it is estimated that the number of ADA-related legal demand letters may exceed 250,000 annually.
We understand that for many businesses, complying with the ADA feels like an excess financial burden; however, the reality is that modern businesses cannot afford not to comply.
The Domino Effect
The repercussions of ADA non-compliance can cascade far beyond the immediate legal and financial penalties.
One significant consequence of non-compliance with the ADA is reputational damage. When a business is publicly cited for ADA non-compliance, customer trust can quickly erode, especially among disabled people and their loved ones. Further, in the modern era, the general public is increasingly concerned with what is perceived as basic fairness towards all individuals. The negative publicity that can come with appearing out of step with that expectation can lead to business losses and undermine the painstaking efforts spent building a brand’s credibility.
Additionally, non-compliant businesses might become ineligible for valuable projects; for example, they could be excluded from public sector contracts that require them to be compliant with all relevant laws and regulations. These missed opportunities have the potential to adversely impact not just short-term revenue but long-term business growth.
Real-World Case Studies
To underscore the critical importance of ADA compliance, let’s delve into a few high-profile case studies from different sectors, each of which is a critical component of the established legal precedents which drive modern ADA lawsuit interpretations and risk aversion best-practices. Since their groundbreaking court cases, these companies have all made great strides in resolving their accessibility challenges.
In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a class-action lawsuit against retail giant Target, alleging that its website was not accessible to blind users. The case ended in a settlement, with Target agreeing to pay $6 million to the class and an additional $3.7 million in attorney fees and costs.
The National Association for the Deaf (NAD) sued streaming service Netflix for failing to provide closed captioning for its video content. Netflix settled the case and agreed to caption all its content, affirming the requirement for online businesses to ensure accessibility to all users.
A blind customer sued Domino’s Pizza after he couldn’t order food from the company’s website and mobile app, even with screen-reading software. The Supreme Court upheld that Domino’s must make its digital platforms accessible.
Harvard and MIT
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faced lawsuits in 2015 for failing to provide closed captioning in their online educational content. The suit, brought by the NAD, resulted in both institutions agreeing to caption their online course materials, signifying the applicability of ADA to the education sector.
Understanding and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is both a basic act of corporate social responsibility and a critical business imperative. A highly accessible website is a critical aspect of any public-facing business’s revenue engine and a necessary component of maintaining positive public relations. For the millions of businesses bound by this landmark legislation, however, ADA compliance is also a legal obligation that carries with it significant financial risk, both in terms of government fines and civil litigation. Compliance with the ADA can be complex and, as we’ve already begun exploring, non-compliance can have grave financial and practical consequences. In our next installment, we’ll discuss what accessibility itself means in the context of the Americans with Disability Act, so that you can begin to get a firmer understanding of what it means for your Public Accommodations and other assets to achieve accessibility in the eyes of the law. If you would like to talk to somebody about your website, please call us at: 608-294-5460
Note: All proprietary symbols displayed on this page are and remain the sole property of their respective trademark owners. This blog post does not represent formal legal advice. For formal legal advice, please seek the help of a qualified attorney. We additionally recommend, if possible, that you review official government guidance on the ADA, including: https://www.ada.gov/resources/web-guidance/