The History of Disability Protections
For nearly 60 years, the American government has supported formal measures of equality, so from birth, all people have equal protections that are backed by law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly states that it is illegal to discriminate against people based on the following criteria:
- National origin
Nearly a decade later, recognizing that additional protections were necessary, the federal government passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination based on disability by federal government affiliates: programs, funded programs, employees, and contractors. This was particularly important to certain programs, like Title III, which is based on English language-proficiency in early education and supports immigrant children. Fast forward 25 years and the Act was amended to include Section 508, which focuses on accessibility to electronic information provided by federal agencies to those with disabilities.
A similar process followed the Civil Rights Act and its revisions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 to ensure that people with disabilities have equal rights as non-disabled people, and 20 years later in 2010, the Standards of Accessible Design was published. The U.S. Department of Justice set these principles to ensure that those with disabilities could access information stored, accessed, and controlled electronically, and that which is found online. The original law was enhanced through this measure, so ADA standards apply to software and the internet. With most systems using modern technology to provide information, entities – both public and commercial – are expected to create sites that allow access to individuals with disabilities. What began as disabled people requesting wheelchair ramps to be installed in physical locations like public spaces, evolved to include the virtual realm of cyberspace. Public accommodation has become a broader, more inclusive term, and now applies to websites.
The Web’s Governing Body
Along with national laws that promote technology inclusion, the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3), an international group that establishes standards for the web, has led the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) since the late ‘90s. Composed of numerous groups, the WAI project provides suggested parameters for web accessibility by disabled people, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG, with later versions being labeled WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1). By treating the web like a public library, it has been recognized that all people should have equal access to the available information on electronic devices like computers and cell phones. WCAG 2.0 outlines four criteria for accessible websites:
These categories contain 12 guidelines that help website designers and authors to create design and content that is ADA compliant.
Ways to be ADA Compliant and Customer-Inclusive
Some things to consider in the look of the website is that those with visual problems must be able to access all material. This includes different impairments like red-green color blindness and blindness. This does not mean that the website design must change entirely, but the website owner should be able to provide alternatives or accommodations to users. Web design should support screen readers, which can be applied through programs for those who are visually impaired or have learning disabilities.
Users who have hearing problems should also be able to access a website in its entirety. Videos can be subtitled, and interviews or other speech can be documented in a transcript. Any information that is available through hearing should also be presented in another way.
Graphics on a site should not cause any problems to users who may have a seizure disorder that is triggered by flashing graphics and lights. Web sites can be eye-catching and interesting without being dangerous to individuals. Even if there is flashing, users with conditions like photosensitive epilepsy may be able to safely view a page if the contrast is lessened, there is more time in between a flashing graphic, and that certain reds are not used for this feature. There should also be an option to prevent flashing from occurring, which the user can control.
For individuals who may have a cognitive impairment, the information should be clear and easy to understand. While some information may be advanced and include jargon specific to a profession, in general, the content should be user-friendly. If information cannot be readily translated into simpler language, additional resources should be available. This might include links to difficult words or options for assistance. In other cases, text may be easier to read if it has headlines, is broken into paragraphs, or also contains easily understood graphics.
Motor Skills Impairment
Some users may have difficulty using tools like a mouse to access information on a website. The design should easily allow keyboard shortcuts, or in some cases, the ability to perform voice commands through certain software. Accessibility is possible for personals of all abilities, and in the business world, also creates inclusivity for potential customers who could benefit from a product or service.
ADA Compliance Paired with Search Engine Optimization
Business owners who focus on search engine optimization (SEO) techniques may find that keyword optimization is challenging when creating text for assistive readers. The alternative text may not be ideal for screen readers, and therefore should be altered to accommodate them. While this may affect SEO rankings, businesses must comply with certain regulations and will benefit from more users having access to their content. There may be some technical work necessary to adhere to the guidelines, but this is the general nature of technology.