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Website Accessibility Legislation and Standards

In the world of economic development it’s always better to take initiative by bringing an issue to the attention of senior officials, with attendant recommendations, rather than be caught unprepared having to answer questions when the issue catches up with you.

That is the case with web accessibility. Though most economic development departments in North America don’t seem to perceive an urgent need to make their websites fully accessible to people with disabilities or risk having the law wash over them, they should all be aware that the tide will come in. And sooner than they might expect.

US Legal Requirements

In the United States, municipalities and their economic development departments have generally done very little about web accessibility. The reasons are not clear, since federal laws have existed for several years with the intent of making municipal websites as accessible to disabled people as to anyone else.

The two most relevant laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. The latter applies to government entities that receive federal funding. Both laws generally require that state and local governments provide to qualified individuals with disabilities an equivalent level of access to their programs, services, or activities that unimpaired people have, unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the jurisdictions’ programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden.

The ADA empowers employees to request “reasonable accommodations” throughout the business environment, including intranet sites, software and hardware. The ADA is being applied to websites of organizations and businesses. Lawsuits against companies have been filed in civil courts on behalf of advocacy groups and individuals under the ADA.

This law is composed of five “titles” that prohibit discrimination against disabled persons. Titles I and II are the primary sections that affect municipal governments and their agencies

Title I prohibits employers, including municipalities, from discriminating against qualified job applicants and workers who are or who become disabled. The law covers all aspects of employment including the application process and hiring, training, compensation, advancement, and any other employment term, condition, or privilege. Title II prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against disabled persons in their programs and activities.

The Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973 and amended twice since, was the first civil rights legislation in the US designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability status. Section 508 authorized the creation of accessibility standards to be applied to the procurement of electronic and information technology goods and services by the federal government and its agencies.

Those standards were published at the end of 2000. They can be found here. The General Services Administration hosts an online course for web developers interested in accessible web design, at the Section 508 site.

The Section 508 standards were the first US accessibility standards for the Internet. Previously, people looked to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C (please see What Is an Accessible Website? published August 9, 2011) but those guidelines come from a voluntary international body with no regulatory power.

US state governments may be held accountable for complying with Section 508. All states receive funding under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. To gain access to this funding, each state must assure the federal government it will implement all conditions of Section 508 within its state entities. Some states, including Arizona, Nebraska and Wisconsin, have codified Section 508 to be state law.

At the municipal level there is little evidence that governments and their agencies are complying with either the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. It seems likely, however, that a lawsuit will spring up that will turn this tide.

That’s what happened in Canada.

Spur of a Lawsuit

In 2006 Donna Jodhan of Toronto, a special needs consultant who was legally blind at the time (she has since had corrective surgery), sued the Canadian government because she was unable to apply online for a government job.

She won. On November 29, 2010, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the government must deliver websites in a useable format for blind and partially-sighted Canadians, and gave the government 15 months to make its sites accessible to visually impaired users.

The government has appealed the decision, but nevertheless the case has spurred it to make a commitment to providing accessible online information and services to Canadians.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has published a series of standards, called the Common Look and Feel Standards for the Internet. Its Standard on the Accessibility, Interoperability and Usability of Web Sites can be found here.

The principles underlying that standard are outlined as follows:

“Canadians have the right to obtain information and services from Government of Canada Web sites regardless of the technologies they use. The key to effective implementation of universal accessibility lies in designing sites to serve the widest possible audience and the broadest possible range of hardware and software platforms, from adaptive technologies to emerging technologies.

“For many Canadians, accessing Web content is more complicated than clicking a mouse and typing on a keyboard. Some Canadians rely on adaptive technologies such as text readers, audio players and voice-activated devices to overcome the barriers presented by standard Internet technologies. Others may be limited by their own technology.”

The Province of Ontario has taken the most vigorous steps to date in moving forward in the spirit of those principles. It has been developing accessibility standards since the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was passed in June 2005. It is now Ontario law that, by the beginning of 2014, all municipalities with populations of more than 50 must ensure that all new websites – including those of economic-development arms – will have to conform to W3C web accessibility guidelines.

Will other provinces follow suit? They haven’t yet, but a number of municipalities have done so on their own initiative. There is an undeniable legal framework for doing so. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a bill of rights in the constitution of Canada, provides that persons with disabilities are equal to others under the law and have the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law.

Increasingly in both the US and Canada, municipal and economic development officials need to be aware of which way the regulatory waters are flowing. If they do not work toward implementing accessibility guidelines for activities that fall under their regulatory prerogatives, they will open their organizations to legal challenges from their citizens.

There is another reason why high priority should be assigned to making economic development websites accessible to people with disabilities. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.

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