Web accessibility has been something of a contentious topic for quite some time now. With digital lawsuits at an all-time high (11,452 federal filings in 2021), it’s clear that businesses are under threat from plaintiff law firms. Yet, the governance on the issue has remained relatively vague. 

As a result, claimants have relied on precedent, often citing Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act to secure a victory in the courts. This legislation is frequently cited since it states that disabled individuals must not be discriminated against or denied access to any “public place of accommodation.” As you might expect, the principal line of defense in these cases frequently revolves around the argument that websites that do not qualify as public accommodations and hence are not subject to Title III of the ADA. Cases have been dismissed on these grounds in the past.

However, in a press release that was published at the end of March, the Department of Justice has finally broken its silence and made an official statement regarding web accessibility guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The guidance appears to be aimed toward company owners and government personnel who are unfamiliar with the Department of Justice’s position on website accessibility and/or its legal basis.

“We have heard the calls from the public on the need for more guidance on web accessibility, particularly as our economy and society become increasingly digitized,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This guidance will assist the public in understanding how to ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities. People with disabilities deserve to have an equal opportunity to access the services, goods, and programs provided by government and businesses, including when offered or communicated through websites.”

Examples of barriers to web accessibility

In the new documentation, the DOJ highlights six common yet unnecessary barriers to web accessibility. These barriers make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to use websites, just like physical barriers such as steps can prevent some people with disabilities from entering a building. In the digital realm, these barriers keep people with disabilities from accessing information that businesses and state and local governments make available to the public online. According to the DOJ, these barriers must be prevented or removed so that websites are accessible to people with disabilities.

  • Poor color contrasts – Those with limited vision or color blindness will not be able to read or understand text if the contrast ratio is poor. For users with vision loss equal to 20/80 vision, the WCAG recommends a 7:1 contrast ratio, but only 3:1 for large text.
  • Using color to give information – Color should not be used as the sole means to gain information, since those with color blindness will not be able to pick up on the cues. For example, important information should not be highlighted or color-coded in order to demonstrate its value to the reader. Moreover, screen readers are not able to discern the color of the text on the screen; therefore, it cannot be relayed to those with blindness.
  • Lack of alt text – Alt text is used to help blind people understand the purpose and intent of images, illustrations, charts, and other graphics. Alt-text is read aloud to users by screen reader software, which is why it is a necessary component on all public websites.
  • No video captions – Similar to alt text, video captions allow those with hearing disabilities to understand the context and meaning of the information delivered via video format. Without captions, it is unlikely that users will be able to receive the same level of information.
  • Inaccessible online forms – Some disabled users may not be able to fill out online forms accurately for various reasons. For example, forms may not be compatible with screen readers, or they may time out too quickly for those with cognitive impairments. 
  • Mouse-only navigation – Some users cannot operate a mouse, which means that if a website relies on mouse or trackpad navigation, it will be inaccessible. In most cases, users who cannot operate a mouse rely on keyboard navigation.

The DOJ’s renewed focus on web accessibility 

In many ways, the DOJ’s latest press release simply confirms that Title III of the ADA mandates that all private websites, including those of web-only businesses, must be made accessible to people with disabilities. With this recent clarification, it is likely that we will see an even larger rise in web accessibility lawsuits. Therefore, businesses that fail to make provisions for disabled users will be at an even greater risk of facing litigation procedures.

It’s crucial to emphasize, though, that these rules aren’t in place to punish business owners for the sake of it. Instead, they are to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities by ensuring that they have equal and fair access to all public information and services, regardless of their level of ability. Furthermore, the disabled market is predicted to be worth $21 billion, which is larger than the African-American and Hispanic markets combined. As a result, having a more accessible website will give you direct access to these consumer segments, which could prove to be an extremely lucrative business move.