Just as business are required by the ADA to accommodate customers with disabilities in the physical world, they are required to do so on the web.
But the web is a very different place than the physical world, and the rules around these requirements are not clear. There are a few reasons for this: the internet hasn’t been around as long as buildings, lawmakers have a shallow grasp of technology, and internet itself (along with the devices people use to access it) is evolving much quicker than the law.
On the physical property, the ADA has very clear rules around things like parking, interior, exterior, restrooms, and signage. But when it comes to the web, the rules governing ADA compliance have been expected in some form since 2010 with no clear indication where it will go. The Department of Justice (DOJ) published the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design in September 2010. These standards state that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities. They’ve since announced that formal accessibility standards will be announced some time after April of 2016 (don’t hold your breath).
At this point nobody outside of the DOJ knows exactly what those rules will be, but the general consensus is that the government will adopt the accessibility guidelines developed by the WWC called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Level AA. You can check them out here.
The DOJ has been enforcing without clear rules around accessibility, and there are a few major cases working itself through the system that may ultimately determine the framework of the law. So enforcement is often happening in response to litigation. In fact lawsuits for ADA compliance are being bundled by unscrupulous law firms and rapidly becoming an industry unto itself. This is not much different than the way law firms for years have been extracting settlements from businesses for not having ramps or railings in their physical space.
It would make a lot of sense for the DOJ to provide a compliance window or mechanism that allows organizations some leeway in bringing their website up to speed, but that’s far from certain considering there are competing interests here. But say every company in North America decided they would bring their website into compliance tomorrow – there are roughly 10 firms or consultants with this specialization that would be serving millions of businesses. Of course that’s not possible, but if you work with a capable agency (like us) you should be able to significantly mitigate exposure and risk to your organization.
The establishment of these rules and its enforcement will have a tremendous impact across the spectrum, but you should expect additional scrutiny for hotel and travel websites as they are viewed as more essential than, say something non-essential. Retrofitting a website (especially a complex or transactional one) to be ADA compliant can be prohibitively expensive – especially for a small business. And the compliance piece is not a decision businesses would make on their own based on the potential market (those with disabilities), or by running a traditional cost/benefit analysis. But there is strong argument here for the greater good; those with disabilities should have the same or similar access to the web as those without disabilities.
So let’s put this into practice. You should clearly outline ADA compliant amenities like ramps, pool lifts, elevators, and include ADA accessible rooms in the accommodations section (rooms that can’t be double booked, by the way). And your staff should be able to articulate your ADA compliance policy and accessibility features of the room and hotel.
Otherwise the rules around compliance on in the W3C website is elaborate and obtuse – so here’s a simple list that summaries the requirements in point form from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Every image, video file, audio file, plug-in, etc. has an alt tag
- Complex graphics are accompanied by detailed text descriptions
- The alt descriptions describe the purpose of the objects
- If an image is also used as a link, make sure the alt tag describes the graphic and the link destination
- Decorative graphics with no other function have empty alt descriptions (alt= “”)
- Add captions to videos
- Add audio descriptions
- Create text transcript
- Create a link to the video rather than embedding it into web pages
- Add a link to the media player download
- Add an additional link to the text transcript
- The page should provide alternative links to the Image Map
- The tags must contain an alt attribute
- Data tables have the column and row headers appropriately identified (using thetag)
- Tables used strictly for layout purposes do NOT have header rows or columns
- Table cells are associated with the appropriate headers (e.g. with the id, headers, scope and/or axis HTML attributes)
- Make sure the page does not contain repeatedly flashing images
- Check to make sure the page does not contain a strobe effect
- A link is provided to a disability-accessible page where the plug-in can be downloaded
- All Java applets, scripts and plug-ins (including Acrobat PDF files and PowerPoint files, etc.) and the content within them are accessible to assistive technologies, or else an alternative means of accessing equivalent content is provided
- When form controls are text input fields use the LABEL element
- When text is not available use the title attribute
- Include any special instructions within field labels
- Make sure that form fields are in a logical tab order
- Include a ‘Skip Navigation’ button to help those using text readers
The good news is that if you’re website was developed recently (assuming you had a reputable developer working on the website) it was likely coded according to the latest web standards. This would mean you’re more than halfway there.
The level of compliance you want to achieve will vary according to your circumstances. But thinking ahead and working with the right agency should have a significant impact on exposure and liability.