Thursday 31 December 2015
Netflix, Disney and Target have all faced lawsuits alleging their websites offer poor accessibility for the disabled. It makes no sense to wait for US guidelines, now expected in 2018, to end an era of digital discrimination
In 2018, the US Department of Justice is finally expected to issue regulations spelling out the criteria for websites to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The US Department of Justice is developing regulations that will spell out the criteria for websites to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The new rules arent expected to be issued until 2018.
Every few months, a new lawsuit involving internet accessibility pops up. In November, a legally blind man sued the National Basketball Association, claiming its website did not accommodate the visually impaired. Over the summer, cruise operator Carnival Corp agreed to pay $405,000 in damages and penalties in a settlement with the US justice department over a variety of accessibility issues, including ones with its website and apps.
A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 2%, or 4.7 million American adults, said they suffered from a disability or illness that made it difficult or impossible for them to use the internet. For a growing number of companies, that inaccessibility comes at a cost. The US Department of Justice (DOJ), citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, has sued and negotiated millions of dollars in settlements with big brands such as Target, Disney and Netflix, for not designing their websites to accommodate the browsing needs of disabled customers.
Yet last month, the DOJ once again delayed a plan to issue regulations spelling out the criteria necessary for websites to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It had previously planned to issue the rules in June of this year, but it then postponed the date to April 2016. It now expects to release the regulations in 2018.
Websites designed to be disability friendly typically include features such as accurate auto-translation, better speech recognition, enhanced search engine optimization and browser zoom. Many of these features also improve the internet experience for other users. Text transcripts and video captioning are a must for the deaf, but are also widely used by the hearing: 80% of TV viewers use closed captioning for reasons other than hearing loss, according to a recent UK study.
Lawsuits and complaints
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, requires most consumer-facing businesses, such as restaurants, hotels, hospitals and museums, to accommodate disabled people. At that time, the internet was still under development. However, the growth of online commerce has forced the government to figure out how to enforce the law in the virtual marketplace.
Translating the law from the physical world to the digital is no small task, as the range of disabilities that can affect access to the internet is vast. Disabilities can cover a range of health issues beyond vision, hearing, speech, cognition and neurological problems. For example, some users have repetitive motion injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis or gamers thumb. Those with chronic diseases, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, also face challenges with cognition, memory or physical capability that can make it difficult to access the internet.
The challenges will only grow bigger. The aging population is set to double by 2050, paving the way for more people who will have either a permanent or temporary condition that will likely get in the way of web accessibility. As more and more cases crop up, its becoming clear that the problems are far broader than most people imagine.
Companies that fail to design accessibility into their digital experiences face a very real risk of reduced revenues, lost customers and a damaged reputation that can be hard to measure. Target, for example, had to shell out roughly $10m in damages and legal fees to settle a class action lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind and agreed to make its site accessible to the many disabled customers who had trouble navigating it. In 2013, H&R Block discovered the risks of digital discrimination when the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit accusing it of failing to offer an accessible website. The DOJ intervened to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act and brokered an agreement that required the tax service to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and damages and adopt measures that ensured full and equal access.
That money likely represents only a fraction of the cost that H&R Block has paid for web inaccessibility.
In another landmark case, the DOJ alleged last year that Peapod one of Americas largest online grocers had discriminated against the disabled by offering insufficient access to people with vision loss, hearing loss and limited manual dexterity. Following negotiations with the DOJ, the food retailer agreed to make its website and mobile apps fully accessible so that technology such as Braille displays or programs to convert text to speech would be easy to use. Peapod also agreed to retain an independent web accessibility consultant, adopt a formal web accessibility policy, and provide regular accessibility testing of its site by people with disabilities.
Part of the difficulty with designing an ADA-compliant website is the question of what, exactly, comprises a good user experience. The World Wide Web Consortium, an international community working to develop web standards, has created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, an industry standard aimed at making web content more accessible to a wide range of people with disabilities.
The DOJ is already using these guidelines as the basis for some of its investigations. For example, the DOJ applied them in its case against Carnival Corp, which runs Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. The DOJ contended that the cruise operator didnt provide enough cabins or seats at dining and entertainment venues to the disabled customers, and its websites and mobile apps also needed to be easier to use for them. In its settlement with the DOJ, the cruise company promised to ensure that, in the future, its website and apps will adhere to the guidelines. The guidelines impact extends across national borders. In the UK, for example, the British government is already using them to measure compliance with the 2010 Equality Act.
Besides being a tool of enforcement, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines could shed some light into the regulations the DOJ plans to release in 2018, and could help companies figure out how to protect themselves from future lawsuits. And, just as importantly, they can also provide web designers with concrete tools and clear goals.
When designers build digital experiences with accessibility in mind, all of us benefit. For example, an interface that can be tabbed through quickly and logically isnt just helpful for people who have trouble operating a mouse its also the fastest and easiest way for anyone to navigate most sites. As Portland-based UX engineer Joe Watkins puts it: Great web accessibility isnt a thing you do; its a side effect of awesome thoughtful work.
Marcy Sutton, an accessibility engineer at Adobe and a leader of Seattles Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that promotes web development by women, sums it up this way: Accessibility is about designing and developing for as many people as possible. Its about doing the right thing creating a more inclusive web with each screen or line of code.