Is your municipal website or mobile application accessible to people with disabilities? If a disabled person who uses assistive technology tried to access your municipal website, such as a visually impaired person who uses a screen reader or a physically disabled person who uses voice recognition software to control their computers with verbal commands because they cannot manipulate a mouse, would your municipal website and the services provided through it be accessible to these individuals? These are questions that you may not have previously considered, but in light of a recent spate of lawsuits in the private sector revolving around these issues, they are something to which you should direct your attention.
Not only does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment, but under Title II it also provides that, “…no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. A “public entity” for purposes of this prohibition is defined in the ADA to include a local government or a department, agency, or other instrumentality of a local government. 42 U.S.C. § 12131. Although the language of the ADA does not explicitly mention websites or the internet, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is the agency responsible for enforcement of Title II of the ADA, has taken the position that the ADA covers website access. See 28 C.F.R. Pt. 35, App A. Accordingly, public entities that choose to provide services through web-based applications, or communicate with the public, or provide information through the internet must ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to such services or information, unless doing so would result in an undue burden or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the programs, services, or activities being offered.
Common barriers to web accessibility include: incompatibility with speech recognition or screen reading software; lack of text-based alternatives to media content; poor color contrast or small text size; use of certain types of documents which do not work well with assistive technology; and, transaction timing requirements that do not take into account intellectual disabilities. In order to provide some guidance on avoiding these barriers, the DOL has issued two publications which prove helpful. One is entitled Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities and the other is Chapter 5 of the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments, entitled Website Accessibility Under Title II of the ADA (both referred to collectively as “the guidance”). The aim of these documents is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities. The guidance notes that an agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations under Title II of the ADA by providing an alternative accessible way for the public to use the government’s programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. The guidance notes, however, that this alternative may not be able to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation or the range of programs available. Accordingly, the DOL suggests that online barriers to accessibility be removed. The DOL refers to two resources which should be used to provide guidance for web developers when designing accessible web pages. One is the Section 508 Standards, which is what federal agencies must follow for their own web pages. Links to the Section 508 Standards are provided in the guidance. The other resource is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by a subgroup of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which is the organization that standardizes programming language followed by all web developers. The WCAG help website designers make web pages as accessible as possible to the widest range of users, including those with disabilities. The WCAG are also publicly available online.
The goal of the Section 508 Standards and the WCAG is to help developers create and increase web access in such ways as: providing text alternatives for non-text content; providing captions for multimedia; creating content that can be presented in alternative ways without losing meaning; making functionality available from a keyboard, versus a mouse; providing sufficient time to users to read and use content; providing use of content without blinking lights which could cause seizures; making text readable and understandable; and, maximizing compatibility with current and future user tools and assistive technology.
In light of the foregoing, you should evaluate your municipal website to determine whether it is accessible to individuals with disabilities. If it is not, you should implement a process to ensure that your municipal website is accessible in accordance with the mandate of Title II of the ADA. If it is currently compliant, implement a periodic review process to ensure that you are keeping up with the latest accessibility guidelines and assistive technology. Work with your IT vendors or in-house IT professionals to ensure that they are properly trained on web accessibility issues so that your municipal website is in compliance. You should also consider providing an alternative means of access for visitors to your municipal website, either by posting a telephone number or an email address on your home page. Additionally, implement procedures to assure a timely response to users who are attempting to obtain information through this method. Finally you may also want to consider periodically enlisting disability groups to “test” your municipal websites for ease of use and use their feedback as a diagnostic tool to correct any discovered deficiencies.