Web Accessibility Laws: Why Law Firms Need Accessible Websites

October 17th, 2017 by Adam Draper   |   Posted in Web Marketing

Over half of the 53 million Americans with present disabilities use the internet, but many find it frustratingly difficult to access the websites they need. From vision impairments to cognitive disabilities, a variety of issues limit users’ ability to navigate the internet.

A variety of national and international statutes guide modern website accessibility. Websites that fail to abide by these guidelines risk compliance issues or costly lawsuits. They also risk shutting out a significant portion of the online population, a grave concern for legal practices specializing in workers’ compensation, SSDI, or elder law. The following guidelines are especially worth considering while assessing and implementing accessibility measures:

Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act’s Section 508 mandates complete accessibility for all federal agency information technology, including computer hardware, software, phone systems, copiers, and websites. Although the amendment’s requirements do not directly apply to most private sector organizations — including some that receive federal funding — their influence extends far beyond the federal realm. Several states have adopted some or all of Section 508 or created their own laws closely modeled onthe federal amendment.

Certain elements of Section 508 have recently changed in keeping with the evolution of telecommunications and in order to align United States regulations with international guidelines. For example, categorization now occurs via function, rather than product type.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services provides several 508 checklists in hopes of improving compliance. These checklists help users determine the role links, images, color contrast, and several other elements at play in website accessibility. Designed for federal and state agencies, these checklists serve as a useful resource for law firms and other private entities looking to improve accessibility for users with disabilities.

Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines

Published in the Federal Register in 1998, the Telecommunications Act’s Accessibility Guidelines aim to make a variety of telecommunications products accessible for users with physical and mental impairments. If access remains impossible, service providers and manufacturers must make products compatible with specialized equipment used by those with disabilities. Companies must also include individuals with disabilities in core market research initiatives so as to better determine accessibility barriers.

WCAG 2.0

Endorsed by the United States Department of Justice, WCAG 2.0 mandates that all internet resources be:

1. Perceivable

Non-text content should include text alternatives such as captions for videos and other forms of rich media. Content should be compatible with assistive media and should not lose all meaning when such technology is used.

2. Operable

Users should be afforded ample time to read and use website content. They should also be provided assistance with finding content. Steps should be taken to ensure that websites do not trigger seizures.

3. Understandable 

Content should appear in predictable ways, thereby making it easier for users to read and understand.

4. Robust

Webmasters should seek to improve compatibility with current and future tools for improving disabled users’ internet access.

Content providers can turn to W3C’s Techniques for WCAG 2.0 for assistance with achieving all mandates from WCAG 2.0. These techniques are periodically updated in keeping with the rapidly evolving nature of the internet, but the basic principles of accessibility remain constant.

Department of Justice Guidelines and the Role of the Courts

During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice indicated on several occasions that websites must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that it would eventually publish guidelines showing content managers how to obtain full compliance. Those guidelines were never published, however, so as of yet, there are no federally mandated requirements. Rather, this issue has largely been left up to the court system. For example, a federal judge in Florida recently ruled that the Winn-Dixie website was inaccessible to visually impaired individuals and therefore in violation of the ADA.

Regardless of whether the DOJ eventually adopts formal standards, today’s law firms must be cognizant of the ADA and the potential for litigation; as the American Bar Association points out, all law firms (no matter the size) are deemed places of public accommodation, and therefore are subject to the ADA’s accessibility provisions.

ICT Refresh

Information technology has changed radically since many of the accessibility guidelines highlighted above were put into effect. In early 2017, a final rule published by the United States Access Board jointly updated requirements for both the Communication Act’s Section 255 and the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 508. This refresh further harmonized requirements with European Commission standards and those outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The ICT Refresh will officially take effect in early 2018.

Keeping Websites Up to Code

In addition to preventing disabled users from enjoying a full internet experience, inaccessible content harms content platforms, which are unable to target a large share of today’s online readership. Applied to the legal industry, inaccessible content makes it more difficult to attract certain prospective clients, especially for estate planning and elder law firms. Thankfully, advanced technology and constantly improving speeds make it easier than ever to meet the unique needs of disabled internet users.

Alt Tags and Subtitles

Internet users with visual impairments struggle to make sense of rich media, which plays an increasingly significant role in content strategy. As sites continue to add more sophisticated images, infographics, and videos, they must consider the needs of users with limited vision. Alt tags prove particularly useful in this regard; visually impaired individuals who utilize screen readers access alt tags’ descriptions audibly, allowing them a clearer understanding of what, exactly, is displayed in images. Subtitles and captions play a similar role in video content.

Accessibility Guides

Disabled users often struggle to navigate websites and can quickly get lost among the many pages and links at their perusal. Accessibility guides make it easier for users to find the information they need. Some websites even provide tips and tricks users with disabilities can use to search more effectively elsewhere. This is best exemplified by the BBC’s My Web, My Way program, which aims to improve disabled users’ access not only to the BBC website, but also to make the most of the internet at large.

In an increasingly digital world, it is more important than ever that internet users with disabilities obtain full access to all virtual resources — including law firm websites. Today’s attorneys must make every effort to accommodate disabled clients, and that means adhering to Section 508, WCAG 2.0, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other accessibility standards.