Over the last several decades, the word “accessible” has gradually taken on a new meaning.
It used to refer to being in a convenient location, such as a business being located right off the interstate. But because of a legislative push tracing back to the 1960s, “accessibility” has become synonymous with giving people with disabilities equal access to public places.
With the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many in the disabled community saw an opportunity to unite with other minorities who were fighting for equal rights. By the 1970s, advocates for people with disabilities were lobbying and marching, demanding that civil rights language be included with the upcoming Rehabilitation Act.
Finally, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, and under Section 504, it was prohibited to discriminate against people with physical and mental disabilities, giving them equal opportunity in terms of employment, in addition to access to public services.
From there, the fight for accessibility began spreading to every sector. As an example, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was passed giving equal opportunity to students with disabilities in public education.
Legislation prohibiting discrimination against those with disabilities was either tacked on as part of other broader legislation or was extremely focused, as was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This all changed on July 26, 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act—the ADA—was signed into law.
According to ada.gov, “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.”
With the ADA’s passing, places defined by the law began forming departments to oversee making their stores and restaurants easily accessible. These early departments were usually defined under maintenance since at the time, accessibility was more construction-based, like ramps and electronic doors.
It wasn’t until 1998, when the Rehabilitation Act was amended with Section 508, that you saw accessibility legislation being applied to anything electronic.
According to Section508.gov, “Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, open new opportunities for people with disabilities, and encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.”
Then, in the mid 2000s, lawsuits began appearing against companies whose websites weren’t setup to be easily accessible to those with disabilities. And the crux of these lawsuits was Title III of the ADA.
According to ada.gov, “The Title III regulation covers —Public accommodations (i.e., private entities that own, operate, lease, or lease to places of public accommodation), commercial facilities, and private entities that offer certain examinations and courses related to educational and occupational certification.”
The most impactful of these suits was in 2006. National Federation of the Blind and Bruce Sexton v. Target was filed under Title III of the ADA claiming that Target’s website fell under a “place of public accommodation,” because of its connection with an actual “brick and mortar” location. The website was found to be inaccessible to blind users who wished to look up products, purchase, look for employment information and other services.
Target settled in 2008, claiming no wrongdoing, yet they brought their website into compliance. In addition, they paid $90,000 for the first year of monitoring of the site, with $40,000 a year for two more years.
Since then, more than 30 lawsuits have been filed against big companies, all under Title III: Bath & Body Works, Express, Office Depot, and American Eagle, among others, all were targeted at some point. As a result, companies found to be non-accessible have the potential to be hit with penalties reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But even more recently, controversy is surrounding a decision by a judge in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, ruling that Netflix (an operation without brick-and-mortar locations) also falls under Title III of the ADA as a “place of public accommodation.” While currently still being disputed and discussed, this case has huge potential to make waves as more and more businesses are not necessarily “brick and mortars” with websites, but online only.
While there currently are no hard and fast legal standards handed down by the Department of Justice itself, there are several organizations offering general guidelines to help companies begin looking at their websites and help determine if they are in compliance or are in violation.
Making the Web “Accessible”
The Web Accessibility Initiative has put forth well-respected guidelines that even the DOJ refers to and when they do hand down official regulations, they will more than likely be built upon the Initiative’s work.
According to w3.org, “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world, with a goal of proving a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.”
“I use internet everyday,” says Chris Jeter, former president of the National Federation of the Blind South Carolina, “There have been a few websites I have trouble with.”
Jeter, who was born totally blind in right eye and has functional vision in his left, utilizes zooming software and screen readers to help him navigate sites. He says that one of the biggest issues he has are CAPTCHAs—the small verbal or numerical cues at the end of an online form, that help determine humans from robots.
Unfortunately, it’s the people with disabilities, by and large, who assume a lot of the burden for being able to utilize websites, such as purchasing necessary hardware and expensive softwares.
For this reason, many with disabilities are years behind in technology usage, due to a lack of accessibility.
Using banking as an example, “If you stop today doing [everything online] and went to the bank and walk in personally like 10 years ago, that’s where they are,” says Luke Niemela, chief marketing officer at PromotionPod, a company that partners with AudioEye, which has created an innovative screen reading technology that automatically makes websites audible. Niemela adds, “That’s not equal access and it’s not treating folks equally at all.”
While companies creating accessible websites can be considered ethically right, operating an accessible website also has huge business benefits. According to 2010 data from Census.gov, 56.7 million people in the USA have a disability. That accounts for roughly 19 percent of the population—or, every one in five Americans.
“Accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities, it’s just good business,” says Sharon Bellwood, director of Student Disability Services at Greenville Tech.
According to Bellwood, a spillover affect also occurs from making things more accessible. She uses Home Depot as an example. When they got rid of stairs at their stores, not only were people with mobility challenges able to get around better, but the company’s worker’s compensation claims decreased as a result of fewer accidents.
Likewise, individual states can benefit from being some of the first to step up to the plate and really innovate technology and website accessibility.
“The leaders in thought, innovation and commerce are the ones who do it first,” says Niemela, “I think that South Carolina as a state has a tremendous opportunity—not only in tourism and notoriety—but that the end of the day you can put your head on your pillow and say you are proud to be a part of it.”
But, as is the case with any transformative movement, some industries are becoming bigger thought leaders in this area than others.
In a sector highly dependent on internet access, Greenville Tech has been leading the charge in creating an accessible and welcoming environment for students—especially those with disabilities. In fact, the technical college formed an entire department for students with disabilities, and continues to look for ways in which they can assist in their learning—from tutoring and coaching to utilizing technology to help bridge gaps.
“Greenville Tech has been very forward-thinking in terms of its real estate,” says Bellwood. But don’t get it wrong—the decision is as much about the bottom line as it is the student’s education. “It’s about business, because even though we have regulations, if we don’t bring in students we don’t have a school.”
At 13 percent, Greenville Tech is well above the average (which is around seven to nine percent) in terms of their students with disabilities population. Bellwood attributes that to the proactive attitude the school has taken in not only providing services for disabled students, but in being welcoming to all who have disabilities who may interact with Tech.
Ever since adding a clause on their website that directs those with accessibility problems to Bellwood’s department, they have been busy making sure every inch of their website is easily accessible. The hard work has paid off.
“Eight years ago, I was filling 75 to 80 complaints a month. Last month I got three calls, and two were thank yous,” she says.
But Greenville Tech didn’t stop there. They also formed a website accessibility review team, headed up by Cindy Davies, the Dean of Academic Advancement & Support at Greenville Tech. Each year the team reviews the website, established policies and procedures, and also offers training. In addition to self-policing, they also research and talk to outside vendors making sure their products are accessible and that accessibility is on their radar.
“We want to make sure that our stakeholders are aware of what web accessibility means,” says Davies. Still, she says,the initial challenge of the effort was finding just where to begin.
“We started with an inventory of computer programs, just trying to get a handle on what people use everyday,” she says. From there, their IT department would run scans on each URL while Student Disability Services would go through and manually check high-traffic site areas.
But while Greenville Tech is a model of web accessibility in the educational realm, they realize that there has to be consistent review, upkeep and improvement. For Davies, each year is an opportunity to be better than the year before.
“We are hoping to show improvement every year with these internal reviews,” she says.
According to Clemson.edu, “Creative Services, along with CCIT and the University legal counsel, will oversee Section 508 compliancy and offer assistance across campus as needed. The University’s Web content management system, Cascade, offers some built-in compliancy features.” At USC, they have an entire department similar to Greenville Tech, also called Student Disability Services; they provide similar assistive service.Their website also offers several helpful link and guides for those looking for “how to’s” in terms of making websites and other technologies accessible.
It is estimated that over 50 million people can benefit from increased website accessibility and that number will continue to climb as aging Baby-Boomers will be finding themselves using more and more of assistive technology.
“The return on investment is there if companies are willing to do it,” said Niemela.
But where should a company start?
“The best thing you can do is put a ‘save-your-butt’ clause out there,” says Bellwood. Using that can connect you with disabled users of your site and they can help show where your weaknesses are and what can be done to remedy it.
Once you’ve done that, start with including ALT Tags on all pictures to assist screen readers. ALT tags are invisible tags programmed into the digital images that give precise descriptions of the picture for visually impaired users.
While you don’t need to translate every piece and part of your website into ALT text, you will want to make sure you spell out any critical information or graphics for your disabled customers.
Also, keep in mind that when it comes to websites, “disability” doesn’t equal “blindness,” although much of the conversation is focused there. Hearing disabled, the blind, and even those on the autism spectrum may need the flexibility that a fully accessible site provides. For those with hearing disabilities, be sure to provide captions for all audio content. Shy away from bright and flashing colors as they can distract those with autism or cause seizures in those with Epilepsy.
Extending from that, manual testing your own sites and tech is a tried and true method.
“What’s the best way to test? Using people who have to use screen readers and who have blindness,” said Niemela.
While legislation can be handed down, it says something more for a company to lead the charge and become accessible without being legislated to do so.
“We see today that companies that are honest get the most positive social feedback from consumers,” said Niemela.
And while the business side is a worthwhile investment, being able to get the public to see the challenges those with disabilities face will lead to widespread change, just like with electronic doors and handicapped parking spaces.
“What we are trying to do is get people to ask the question,” said Bellwood.“They ask the question and that is progress.”
Davies agrees. “A lot of us now take it for granted that there is a handicapped space or ramp,” she says. “I’m hoping website accessibility will be like that—just expected.
ONE MORE THING:
Check your own site (or anyone else’s!) Visit the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s site and plug in your own URL. You’ll get a grade on how accessible your site is, and that’s a great place to start.