Americans with Disabilities Act and its Impact on Internet Accessibility

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark decision by the Federal Government that prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment—State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation fall within its legislation. Despite its good intentions, the Act has fallen short of its goal, and growing Internet use is part of the problem as Web 2.0, which emphasizes user-generated content, seems to be growing at rate where ADA standards cannot keep up.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), established in 1994, regulates industry members for the compatibility of standards for the World Wide Web. To address the growing divide between rising Internet usage and its limited accessibility among individuals with disabilities, W3C created the “Web Accessibility Initiative: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines” (WAI-WCAG) to address this issue. The guidelines were originally published in 1999, and consisted of 14 points for accessible design for individuals with different types of disabilities.

Today, more than 2 billion people have access to the Internet, and advances in technology have compounded challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. Companies, organizations, governments and individuals that create online content are challenged as well. In 2008, WCAG 2.0 was released, reassembled into 12 guidelines under four principles abbreviated as P.O.U.R.

  • Perceivable: Text alternatives are equivalents for non-text content.
  • Operable user interface and navigation
  • Understandable: information and user interface
  • Robust content and reliable interpretation

WCAG recommendations are made available to all companies that have an online presence or use the Internet to reach their target audience. A growing number of software firms have even dedicated themselves to help other companies develop accessible web development. Unfortunately, accessibility barriers remain between disabled users and the majority of websites and software.

This is not just a question of ethics, but of legal and financial responsibility as well. In 2001, The National Federation of the Blind began legal proceedings against companies that failed to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired. Cases were eventually also brought against companies that are online-only (e.g., Netflix). The numbers have only increased over the years. A review of summary judgments reveals that the US Department of Justice has come to view the Internet as a public place, and reasonable attempts to achieve accessibility is required in order to do business online.

In its current state, Web delivered content standards apply to all government agencies, private companies and institutions that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But much more work must be done to promote digital accessibility for disabled individuals.

For more read: Achieving Accessibility – The Challenge