Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies that local governments must make their websites easy to access, navigate and understand by people with a wide array of cognitive, sensory and manual impairments. It applies not only to a town’s web page, but to all posted content – even videos. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. The good news is that the standards for public-facing sites are quite specific. The bad news is that they’re still more numerous and technologically complicated than most of us can wrap our heads around – and they keep changing. Good technology is the life raft of the municipal board adrift in the rising tide of accessibility requirements.
An Impossible Imperative
Seeking compliance can feel like herding cats: Ever-morphing standards apply to a dizzying array of unforeseen possibilities. Screen readers only scratch the surface of needed adaptive technologies. Accommodations must address more disabilities than many imagine, and for each condition, a portal must provide thorough and inventive adaptations.
The totality of disabilities includes more conditions than the popular imagination might anticipate. Blindness and deafness are prominent disabilities to be addressed, but they by no means exhaust the field. The list of physical restrictions extends to learning disabilities and age constraints – and even circumstances like location and education level. Furthermore, every town or county must make its web-based material accessible to anyone with any of the disabilities covered by the ADA list; the list of disabilities they must accommodate is not limited to those of people within the jurisdiction. As if that’s not daunting enough, it’s not only public-facing websites that must get up to speed: The regulations apply equally to internal websites, like the sites where job applicants submit their materials. About 18.7% of US citizens need accommodation to access public websites. (CivicPlus, “Local Website Compatibility Guidelines” at www.civicplus.com.)
As readers’ disabling circumstances exceed the usual suspects, so too do the adaptations that must be made. If it’s impossible for a user to contribute to a public forum without using a mouse, your district is not in compliance. If content cannot be accessed from multiple device platforms, you are not in compliance. If embedded video has an audio component with no text for the deaf, you are not in compliance. As a result, lots of local governments think they are “all set,” but they are not. It’s not their fault: Often, their web portal provider assured them that they comply, when their technology does not actually provide all the features that are needed.
At the same time, full compliance is legally required, and delaying creates crippling costs. If subject to a lawsuit, a locality would face not only the cost of updating its technology, but also lawyers’ fees and any damages. Noting a surge in lawsuits in 2017, the website “Lawsuits, Investigations, and Settlements” advises: “[T]he best risk mitigation for covered entities is still to make their websites accessible as soon as possible.” (Minh N. Vu and Susan Ryan, “2017 Website Accessibility Lawsuit Recap: A Tough Year for Businesses,” at www.adatitleiii.com January 2, 2018).
How Technology Can Help
The savvy town or county treads carefully. Many portal providers lack the commitment to full accessibility, and some honestly don’t realize that they provide something less than the regulations require. They imagine they must only interface with Braille converters for the blind, when so much more is needed. Public bodies should seek vendors that cater to their niche; those software vendors reliably stay on top of accessibility issues.
Many software providers neglect accessibility issues because they cater to the larger market of private companies that may not be subject to ADA requirements. (They must comply only if they do business with the federal government.) If public entities make up a small share of the target market of a portal provider, chances are they don’t know – and they don’t care – if they’re meeting the latest Section 508 requirements. Cyndi Rowland, Executive Director of the non-profit WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) reports on the fate of many requests to software companies that they do all that is necessary to accommodate the full array of disabilities covered by Section 508: “A lot of the time what we hear from vendors is that they have limited development dollars.”
The town or county preparing for full compliance by January 2019 should also screen for sophistication. The portal provider should have both legal and technical staff constantly keeping their finger on the pulse of the regulatory community. Otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with which requirements are current – or to anticipate the next generation of specifications. The simple “not knowing” that results from lax engagement explains the unfounded confidence that is rampant among vendors.
BoardDocs is the best in its class for keeping abreast of the political machinations driving regulatory changes. Their legal people meet regularly with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services. The OCR writes the regulations, which currently mandate compliance with the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Because it meets regularly with the OCR, BoardDocs doesn’t only comply with the Level AA standards, but is working on the Level AAA standards that are already in print – but not yet mandated.
Partnering with an informed, proactive technology provider, a town or county can turn accessibility compliance from bête noire to golden opportunity. Getting ahead of the curve with an accessibility-minded portal provider, local governments can overcome the anxiety caused by shifting and complex standards. Instead, their exemplary accessibility efforts can cement their reputation for outstanding citizen engagement.
Minh N. Vu and Susan Ryan, “2017 Website Accessibility Lawsuit Recap: A Tough Year for Businesses,” at www.adatitleiii.com, January 2, 2018
CivicPlus, “Local Website Compatibility Guidelines” at www.civicplus.com)