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Is Your Site ADA-Compliant ...
or a Lawsuit-in-Waiting?



More ADA-Compliance Information

by Cynthia D. Waddell and Kevin Lee Thomason

An estimated 48.9 million people, or 19.4 percent of the non-institutionalized civilians in the United States, have a disability” according to the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (http://www.pcepd.gov/pubs/ek97/facts.htm).   That’s nearly one out of five -- a lot of people.  So it’s not surprising that a few years ago Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    Signed into law in 1990, it “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, programs and services provided by state and local governments, goods and services provided by private companies, and in commercial facilities.”  (See the U.S. Department of Justice “ADA Homepage” at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm.)
    Government offices and agencies, and businesses both large and small are affected by the ADA.  Elevators and ATM machines now feature Braille instructions for people with vision disabilities. Sidewalks now have “curb-cuts” so that people using wheelchairs can easily cross the street without meeting curb barriers.  Wheelchair ramps have been added to buildings that were pretty much off-limits to anyone who couldn’t climb a flight of stairs, and TTY terminals are now being added to telephone banks in building lobbies for people who are deaf or have speech disabilities.  Even public documents and financial statements are now being made accessible in alternative formats such as Braille, large print and audio-tape.  But the ADA doesn’t just apply to the physical world.

    According to the United States Justice Department, the ADA also applies to the cyberspace “world.”  In an opinion letter dated September 9, 1996, The U.S. Department of Justice stated that:

    “Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet. Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well.”
[Emphasis added].

    The first trick is to figure out what a “covered entity” is.  If a law firm has 15 or more employees, they are covered as an “employer” under ADA Title I. If an employee with a disability protected under the ADA (i.e., a lawyer or staff member) must access the law firm intranet/internet as an essential function of their job, then the employee is entitled to request a reasonable accommodation. (And this reasonable accommodation could be the redesign of the law firm Web site.)   Not only that, but all law firms are considered “public accommodations” under Title III as well.  Thus a law firm Web site is a “program” or “activity” of the law firm covered under Title III.

    When members of the public who have a disability attempt to access a Web site, they are therefore entitled to equal access as are any other members of the public.   But what exactly is “effective communication”?  According to a 1996 settlement letter from The Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education (OCR):

    [T]he issue is not whether the [person] with the disability is merely provided access, but the issue is rather the extent to which the communication is actually as effective as that provided to others.

    For a more detailed explanation of meaning of “effective communication,” see “Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard “ (http://www.rit.edu/~easi/law/weblaw1.htm).  But even entities that are not covered by the ADA need to address accessible Web design.

    For example, a proposed rule on communications and electronic accessibility is now being developed by an advisory committee of The United States Access Board.   The Access Board (a.k.a. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) is an independent federal agency created in 1975 that is responsible for guideline development under (1) Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, (2) The ADA, (3) The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and (4) The Architectural Barriers Act.   For more information about this, see http://www.access-board.gov/notices/eitaac.htm.
 Clearly, law firm Web sites are covered under the ADA (and quite possibly the Rehabilitation Act, too).  But is there really an access problem with most Web sites?  In short, yes.

    Web sites which are perfectly accessible to fully-abled people may be impossible for people with disabilities to access.  For example, that beautiful new law firm site that your high-priced designer just created may be impossible for a person using screen reading technology to navigate; particularly if they are blind/low vision or have a specific learning disability.  Those “frames” or neat drop-down Java menus on your site may be impossible to use via voice command software.  Your fancy “streaming audio” online CLE courses or video conferencing events may be impossible for a deaf person to hear.  And so on.

    But ADA compliance shouldn’t be the only reason to make your site fully accessible.   The experts tend to agree that universal design is good for everyone.  According to Kelly Pierce, the co-founder of “Digit-Eyes,” the Chicago blind computer users network, and who serves on the Techwatch committee for the National Council on Disability, “when World Wide Web sites are accessible to people with disabilities, they are highly usable and accessible to everyone else as well.”
 He continues: “As the Web matures and grows in popularity, webmasters can be less and less certain that the visitor is using the latest version of Navigator or Explorer.”  In other words, accessible Web design also assures “backwards compatibility” with older Internet browser software.  But it’s not just older technology that benefits from good design.   Many newer ways to access the internet benefit greatly from universal design, “people may be online with their PalmPilot, or on WebTV, or browsing using their telephone. The closer companies and other organizations design their sites to HTML standards, the more accessible they are to people with disabilities and everyone else,” says Pierce.

    According to David Clark, webmaster for the Center for Applied Special Technology (http://www.cast.org/), “it is not just accessibility for people with disabilities, it's about ‘universal design.'  Making the changes required for people with disabilities benefits everyone.  Examples include people with slow modems who turn graphics off, people who access the Web while driving in a car, and even doctors wanting to access the Web while their hands are busy with a surgery.”
In the future, therefore, universal access will mean that internet kiosks, electronic textbooks and other new information appliances will be accessible to everyone.  But how do you make your site universally accessible?  It’s not that hard. It just requires some common sense. (And if you do it right, it should not require the maintenance of a separate “text-only” Web site).

    Probably the first thing that you should do is to view your current site with a typical text-based internet browser. Back before the advent of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, text-based browsers were the only way to go.
And like the name says, they are text-based. There’s no graphics, no fancy fonts. Nothing but plain old “text-on-a-screen.”  If you have Internet “shell” access, try logging in to your shell account, and typing “lynx” (sans quotes) at the command line. On most systems, this will bring up the commonly used Lynx text browser.  If you don’t even know what “shell” means, or you don’t have shell access, don’t worry.

    You can download a Windows 95/NT version of Lynx for free at http://www.fdisk.com/doslynx/lynxport.htm. Simply download the zip file, unzip it into the desired directory on your local computer, and you are ready to roll.  If you are really lazy, you can use the free online Lynx Viewer by going to http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html and typing in the URL of your Web site.

    Now start up Lynx and visit your firm’s homepage.  Are all of the links visible? Or does your homepage look like this: “[image] [image] [image]?”  If so, a visitor using screen reader technology arriving at your page will only hear the word “image” and not be able to “read” anything on the page.  If this is the case, you should think about adding “Alt-tags” to your HTML coding.

    If you have “frames,” can you navigate through them easily?  Perhaps you do need a “text-only version” of your site.  When viewed with no graphics, does your page still make sense? Maybe your graphics aren’t even the problem, but rather your page makes excessive use of tables and columns.  Do you have documents posted in PDF (portable document format) format?   Most screenreaders cannot currently read PDF documents.  If your site relies upon PDF documents, you will need to post both PDF and HTML versions of everything.

    Once you start viewing your site through the eyes of a person with a disability, you will immediately start to get a sense of how accessible your site really is.  But remember that people who are blind aren’t the only people with disabilities who surf the Web. For example, if you have streaming audio content at your site, you probably didn’t think to put in text transcripts for people who are deaf.  Although most of this is just plain old common sense, there really are a lot of things to consider.
    Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that the ADA does apply to law firm Web sites.   But please don’t panic!  Most sites are pretty easy to make universally accessible. Like we said above, it’s usually just a matter of using your common sense, and testing the site with a text-based browser.  And as the sidebar article in this issue indicates (see More ADA-Compliance Information), there are dozens of online resources on the topic.

    Making your site fully accessible not only protects you from potential liability under The ADA, but it’s also just good business sense.  After all, why deny anyone the right to visit your site?

Cynthia D. Waddell, named to the “Top 25 Women on the Web” by Webgrrls International, received her JD from the University of Santa Clara School of Law and her BA from the University of Southern California.  Currently, Cynthia works for the City of San Jose as the ADA compliance officer where she wrote Web accessibility standards that have received state and federal recognition as a best practices model.  See http://www.amcity.com/sanjose/stories/102797/focus3.html

Kevin Lee Thomason, Esq. (415.732.5600, klt@seamless.com, http://kevinleethomason.com/) helps law firms market their services on the Internet.

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Luckily, there are scores of sites that relate to Web accessibility, and that can help ensure your site is ADA-compliant.  Here are some of the best:

1)  The World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative resources  (http://www.w3.org/WAI/).  This site includes dozens of online resources and how-to’s.
2)  Bobby (http://www.cast.org/bobby/)  Sponsored as a free service by the Center for Applied Special Technology, Bobby allows you to run an accessibility check on your Web site in seconds.  Simply type in your URL and press “submit.”  Then click on any of your links for further diagnostics.
3)  The City of San Jose Web Accessibility Standards (http://www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/oaacc/disacces.html)  San Jose is the first U.S. city to have developed minimum standards in anticipation of the USDOJ Policy Ruling that the ADA applied to the Internet.  See also http://www.rit.edu/~easi/law/weblaw1.htm

 This article is from the November 1998 issue of The Internet Lawyer newsletter 

All rights reserved. Copyright 1998 The Internet Lawyer

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