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.)
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.”
DOES THIS MEAN YOU?
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.
WEB SITE ACCESSIBILITY
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.”
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.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
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.
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?
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
This site includes dozens of online resources and how-to’s.
This article is from the November 1998 issue of The Internet Lawyer newsletter
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