Key Post Highlights
> What are the different web accessibility regulations — and who do they apply to?
> How are web accessibility laws enforced?
> What’s next for web accessibility?
We like to think we live in a world where most of the barriers people with disabilities face in accessing healthcare have been knocked down (think handicapped parking spaces, ramps leading into buildings, doors that open automatically).
The data, however, paints a much harsher reality:
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself while building your vision:
- 1 in 4 adults in the US have some kind of disability.
- 1 in 4 adults with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 44 do not have a regular healthcare provider.
- 1 in 4 adults with disabilities between the ages of 45 and 64 did not have a routine check up in the last year.
While there are many barriers to access that people with disabilities face when seeking healthcare, the inability to navigate your organization’s website should not be one of them. In fact, your healthcare organization may be legally required to provide everyone — including people with disabilities — equal access to your website. But if anything, the pandemic has brought into harsh focus just how far we have to go in this area.
If making your website accessible has usually been an afterthought — if it’s even been thought of at all — it’s time to shift your mindset. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 508, your organization may be required to comply with certain accessibility standards.
Here’s what you should know about web accessibility regulations and enforcement in the US — including what they mean for healthcare organizations, and what may be coming in the future.
What Are The Different Web Accessibility Regulations — And Who Do They Apply To?
In the US, there are currently two main rules that may apply to your healthcare organization’s website: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act (Section 508). This depends on whether you are a business open to the public or a government business (or government contractor).
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
Title III of the ADA requires businesses that are open to the public to provide people with disabilities “full and equal enjoyment of their goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” to prevent discrimination. This includes having an accessible website. The ADA website specifically lists “hospitals and medical offices” as an example of a “business open to the public.”
Other examples of businesses that fall under Title III include:
- Retail stores
- Sports arenas
While the ADA does not have its own web accessibility guidelines outlined in the law, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has recently suggested in accessibility-related cases (more on that below) that Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Version 2.1, Level AA is the gold standard it is looking for websites to reach in order to be considered accessible.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of recommendations developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative to make web content more accessible across devices — like computers and mobile phones — for people with a wide range of disabilities (such as blindness, low vision, deafness, hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, and photosensitivity).
There are 3 levels of WCAG conformance: A (lowest), AA (what most organizations aim for), and AAA (highest).
Following WCAG usually makes your website more usable for everyone.
Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act (Section 508)
Section 508 requires information and communication technology (ICT) — which includes websites — that is “developed, procured, maintained, or used by federal agencies” to be accessible for “people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities.”
Unlike the ADA, which uses the most recent WCAG 2.1 standards, Section 508 requires websites to meet level AA from the earlier WCAG 2.0.
With the exception of government websites or government contractors’ websites, most hospital and healthcare organizations do not have to meet Section 508 requirements. But the good news is, if your website is meeting the WCAG 2.1 AA standards as recommended by the ADA, you’re already meeting Section 508 standards as well. This is because 2.1 standards are built upon 2.0 standards.
How Are Web Accessibility Laws Enforced?
The ADA is usually enforced for web accessibility violations in one of two ways: by private citizens filing lawsuits against companies with inaccessible websites, or by the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigating violations.
The DOJ usually gets involved if a violation is serious and has a profound effect on people with disabilities. For instance, in November 2021, the DOJ reached a settlement with Rite Aid, whose online COVID-19 Vaccine Registration Portal was not fully accessible.
In particular, the DOJ noted that “the calendar on Rite Aid’s website used for scheduling vaccine appointments did not show screen reader users any available appointment times, and people who use the tab key instead of a mouse could not make a choice on a consent form that they needed to fill out before scheduling their appointment.” This made the website inaccessible to people who use screen readers as well as people who use a keyboard rather than a mouse to navigate websites.
With people spending more time online during the pandemic, accessibility has come into the spotlight. And the Rite Aid case is just one example of how the COVID pandemic has brought an increased focus on web accessibility — and with it, an increase in accessibility lawsuits.
Section 508 Enforcement
Government websites have also come under the spotlight thanks to the increased need for accessible online services brought on by the pandemic. A 2021 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that nearly 1/3 of the homepages for federal government websites — including the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute — did not pass an accessibility test compared with benchmark nongovernmental websites.
And, as with the ADA, Section 508 can also be enforced through lawsuits brought on by consumer complaints. Even though Section 508 guidelines apply to government websites, anyone who uses them can sue for noncompliance, whether they are a government employee or a private citizen.
What’s Next For Web Accessibility?
So now what? With no clear, uniform standards — but a clear need to clean up the virtual house — where does this leave the state of web accessibility? And what does any of this mean for your healthcare organization?
In September 2022, Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representative John Sarbanes introduced the “Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act” which, like the ADA, would require places of public accommodation to have accessible websites. What sets this proposed legislation apart, however, is that it states, “The Department of Justice (DOJ) must issue standards of accessibility for applicable entities to meet this requirement.”
In other words: web accessibility compliance would no longer be a matter of guesswork. You won’t have to wonder, “Which standards do I think my organization should be following?” Instead, it will only be a matter of implementation.
Admittedly, that may seem like no easy feat at first. But you may be a lot further along than you think. Interested in finding out where your website currently stands? CareContent’s comprehensive web accessibility audits have you covered.