In 2017, almost 500 companies were sued in federal court for having websites that are inaccessible — i.e., not fully usable by people with disabilities (such as blindness). The number of such lawsuits has increased eightfold in the last two years.
Here’s what you need to know to protect your organization.
SECTION 508, ADA, AND WCAG
Section 508 is an update to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act requiring all federal agencies “give disabled employees and members of the public access to [electronic] information that is comparable to access available to others.”
That means websites.
In addition, there’s the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990). The ADA has been used to sue companies like Hobby Lobby and Five Guys Burgers for maintaining websites that violate the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination in public places, including websites.
Finally WCAG — which stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Sort of a cousin to Section 508, WCAG is a global set of accessibility rules published by W3C, an global volunteer body that helps keep the web truly “world wide.”
WCAG includes three levels of requirements referred to as Level A, AA, and AAA:
- Level A includes the most basic web accessibility features
- Level AA deals with the biggest and most common barriers for people with disabilities
- Level AAA is the highest level of web accessibility available
SECTION 508 JUST GOT STRONGER
On January 18, 2018, the board overseeing Section 508 began to enforce new guidelines and requirements for web accessibility.
But the new requirements aren’t that new: Instead of rewriting rules, Section 508 now points to the (more modern, rigorous, and widely accepted) WCAG standards — specifically Level AA. These two bodies of knowledge are now one and the law of the land.
WHAT THE NEW RULES MEAN FOR YOU
For existing federal agency websites, you are covered by the “Safe Harbor Provision” of the new guidelines, which states that existing websites not altered after the compliance date (January 18, 2018) don’t need to be upgraded to meet the new standards. However, if a website is altered after the compliance date, those alterations must comply. And that includes each “piece” of your website.
For example: If you add a new website feature, content type, etc. , it should meet the WCAG standards or risk running afoul of Section 508, the ADA, and perhaps other local and state regulations.
That’s when you become susceptible to a federal lawsuit.
THE GOOD NEWS
First, accessibility is important. With nearly 50 million Americans having some sort of disability, it’s simply common sense to design and build fully accessible websites.
Second, the likelihood you’ll be sued isn’t (currently) high. The majority of the ~500 accessibility lawsuits last year were against major retailers and restaurant chains. But as plaintiffs prevail, and as more legal precedent is established, lawsuits will continue to grow.
Third, making your website accessible doesn’t need to be expensive, painful, or confusing. At Mighty Citizen, we do this everyday and are happy to talk about how you can improve your online accessibility.
Mike Steckel is director of user experience at Mighty Citizen, a digital branding and marketing agency for mission-driven organizations.