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The US Department of Justice Weighs in on Web Accessibility: What This Means for Businesses

It’s no secret that the internet is rapidly altering our world. Nowadays, millions of people go online to shop, communicate, research, and entertain themselves each and every day. However, while the digital realm is evolving at breakneck speed, it still remains largely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

In fact, the majority of all websites are inaccessible to those that must rely on assistive technology. Not only is this a form of discrimination, but it is also bad business. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3) projects that people with disabilities have a global spending power of more than $6 trillion.

The ambiguity surrounding web accessibility

In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation outlawing discrimination based on disability. These regulations have been extremely specific in terms of what businesses must physically do to discourage exclusion, but the transition to the digital world has been rather murky.

As a result, web accessibility has been a subject of dispute for quite some time. Unlike the physical world, where brick-and-mortar establishments are required by law to accommodate persons with impairments, the internet has been mostly overlooked until recently.

This ambiguity is due to the ongoing debate around what constitutes a “public place of accommodation,” with some businesses arguing that websites should not qualify. However, as the internet continues to grow in significance and websites play a larger role in how customers interact with businesses, the way in which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is applied to web accessibility has begun to shift. Now, it finally seems that the courts are beginning to rule heavily in favor of the plaintiff, since 2021 marked a record year for web accessibility lawsuits in the USA.

The DOJ breaks its silence

On March 18 of this year, the Department of Justice finally released new guidance for businesses, outlining the steps they need to take to achieve ADA compliance as it relates to websites.

“We have heard the calls from the public on the need for more guidance on web accessibility, particularly as our economy and society become increasingly digitized,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke in a statement released by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“This guidance will assist the public in understanding how to ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities. People with disabilities deserve to have an equal opportunity to access the services, goods and programs provided by government and businesses, including when offered or communicated through websites.”

While not explicitly stated, the new DOJ guidance suggests that the department is reinforcing what it previously stated, in that all public websites are subject to Title II of the ADA. As a result, all public websites, including web-only businesses (such as eCommerce stores) must make adequate provisions for people with disabilities and impairments. The document also lists the standards that businesses must use and follow to determine web accessibility and to improve the overall usability of their digital content.

Plan of action for all websites

The guidance from the DOJ comes with a list of actions that businesses should take to improve the accessibility of their websites, so they can stay in accordance with the law. Let’s take a look at some key points:

  • Establish a web accessibility policy – The first step outlined by the DOJ is to develop a policy that addresses web accessibility and implement a strategy that will see this come to fruition.
  • Ensure that all new and modified web pages and content are accessible. All new content should be made accessible, meaning that accessible elements are used, including alt tags, long descriptions, and captions, as needed.
  • Develop a plan for making your existing web content more accessible – Where necessary, go back and remediate old content in order to make it more accessible, especially more popular web pages.
  • Ensure proper training on web accessibility – In-house staff and contractors responsible for web pages and content development should be properly trained.
  • Periodically test your site – Regularly test your pages for ease of use and accessibility issues.

In summary

The DOJ’s press release and supporting document clearly state that websites do, in fact, qualify as a “public place of accommodation,” which means that website owners are subject to the laws outlined in Title III of the ADA. With that said, the voluntary plan of action outlined in the same document should give companies all the guidance they need to sufficiently improve the accessibility of their site and bring it up to compliance.

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