The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. This sweeping legislation gives civil rights protections to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion, guaranteeing equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications. The purpose of the ADA is to grant millions of individuals with disabilities equal access to all public and private places.
The ADA is divided into five sections, or Titles, that provide more detail with regard to areas of public life:
- Title I: Ensures equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to ensure they can participate in the job application process or to perform specific job functions.
- Title II: Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities and services of public entities. This applies to all state and local governments and any of their departments, agencies or other instrumentalities.
- Title III: Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, including such places as restaurants, private schools, sports stadiums, office buildings, and more. Businesses are required to make “reasonable modifications” to serve people with disabilities.
- Title IV: Regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and requires telephone and Internet companies to provide a nationwide system of interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that allows individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone. This title also requires closed captioning of federally funded public service announcements.
- Title V: Contains a variety of provisions relating to the ADA as a whole, including its relationship to other laws, state immunity, its impact on insurance providers and benefits, prohibition against retaliation and coercion, illegal use of drugs, and attorney’s fees. Title V also includes a list of conditions that are not to be considered disabilities.
Does the ADA apply to the Internet?
For government organizations and those relying on government funding, there is extensive legislation mandating equal access, including Title II of the ADA, Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Air Carrier Access Act, the 21st-century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Remember, Title II prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities and services of public entities and applies to all state and local governments and any of their departments, agencies or other instrumentalities.
But private industry is not immune. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation, as well as commercial facilities, to comply with the ADA Standards. Specifically, Title III covers businesses that are open to the public that fall within one of 12 categories:
- Places of lodging
- Food and drink establishments
- Place of exhibition or entertainment
- Places of public gathering
- Sales or rental establishments
- Service establishments
- Public transportation terminals, depots or stations
- Places of public display or collection
- Places of recreation
- Places of education
- Social service center establishments
- Place of lodging
But because the expansive infrastructure of the Internet simply did not exist when the ADA was signed into law, legal mandates can be confusing. So the question becomes, does the ADA mandate apply to the internet? Is your website considered a place of public accommodation?
Are you required to make your website accessible?
When it comes to commercial organization, US Federal Courts have consistently ruled that if the ADA applies to an organization, it also applies to that organization’s website. In fact, the number of digital accessibility lawsuits filed under ADA Title III in US Federal District Courts jumped from 815 in 2017 to more than 2,200 in 2019, and this fast rise in litigation has continued in 2020, reaching new markets and new industries. Plaintiffs are claiming an inaccessible website is an ADA Title III violation.
And these numbers don’t account for countless, unchecked legal demand letters, which have proven to achieve the same outcome as a state- or federally filed lawsuit. More often than not, these result in a financial settlement and a mandate for conformance with accessibility best practices and standards (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, are internationally recognized as the accepted standards for digital accessibility conformance).
In short, if your website is not fully accessible to people with disabilities, you are at increasing risk of being sued. Further, 26-percent of the US adult population, one billion people worldwide, may experience barriers while navigating your website if you haven't taken steps to ensure its accessibility.