Key Milestones in Web Accessibility Law: From the Signing of the ADA to Today
Jul 26, 2023
This blog post was contributed by Karl Groves, Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access.
This month marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a hallmark piece of legislation for the disability community in the United States. On July 26, 1990—more than a quarter century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the rights of people with disabilities were finally given equal protection by the U.S. government when the ADA was signed into law. But in the decade following, the internet exploded in popularity, opening a new frontier for disability rights: web accessibility.
The struggle to ensure equal access to digital information, products, and services for people with disabilities is ongoing. But thanks to advocacy from the disability community and allies, the U.S. has made significant strides toward equity and inclusion in an increasingly online world. Let’s take stock of the major developments that have moved web accessibility law forward from the signing of the ADA to today.
1996: The U.S. Department of Justice rules the ADA applies to the internet
Many people first think about ADA compliance in the context of physical spaces. (For example, a fifth-floor office without elevator access probably registers as an obvious ADA violation.) Making physical infrastructure, such as buildings and transportation services, accessible was a key priority for the advocates and legislators behind the ADA in 1990.
But as individuals and organizations rapidly adopted the internet in the mid-1990s, the inaccessibility of many digital spaces became a growing problem for the disability community. And it was unclear what, if any, portions of the ADA protected the rights of people with disabilities online. In response to this confusion, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) clarified in 1996 that websites could be considered “public accommodations” under Title III of the ADA—meaning website owners have a legal obligation to ensure these digital properties are accessible.
Unfortunately, despite the DOJ’s guidance, some U.S. circuit courts still do not agree with this interpretation of the ADA. Circuit courts’ differing interpretations have prompted legislators to criticize the lack of clarity regarding web accessibility in the ADA itself.
1998: Section 508 is amended with digital accessibility standards
Widely considered one of the most important pieces of legislation for disability rights outside of the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that federal agencies create, purchase, and use information and communication technology (ICT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. But by the late 1990s, U.S. government organizations relied on radically different types of ICT than they had in the 1970s, when the law first went into effect. To account for the widespread adoption of digital technology, like websites and intranet systems, Section 508 was amended in 1998 to include specific technical standards for digital accessibility. (Our Complete Guide to Section 508 Compliance provides more detail on these standards and how to adhere to them.)
1999: WCAG 1.0 is published
As the millennium approached, the internet was no longer a new phenomenon. It was a major channel for communication, reshaping how entire industries—from retail to health care—operated. And much of the internet remained inaccessible to people with disabilities. In 1999, the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) sought to change this paradigm by publishing the first edition of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
WCAG 1.0 provided a set of clear, technical criteria for accessible HTML content, offering designers, developers, and publishers a framework for creating websites that could be used by everyone. Because the ADA itself does not include specific technical guidelines for digital accessibility, WCAG 1.0 also offered the first set of standards for courts to use when assessing whether a website violated the ADA. And when Section 508 was updated with digital accessibility requirements, WCAG 1.0 formed the basis for the web accessibility standards provided.
Ultimately, WCAG 1.0 marked the beginning of an ongoing project. These 1999 guidelines are now widely regarded as limited, and WCAG 1.0 was retired following the publication of WCAG 2.0 (which we’ll cover later in this blog).
2006: The National Federation of the Blind sues Target Corp.
Following the DOJ’s ruling that the ADA applied to websites, organizations that neglected to prioritize digital accessibility began facing legal consequences. However, it wasn’t until 2006 that the first high-profile web accessibility lawsuit citing the DOJ’s decision made headlines. In a 2006 case before the Northern District Court of California, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a class action lawsuit against major retailer Target regarding the inaccessibility of its website, which did not contain alt text for images and could not be navigated with a keyboard instead of a mouse. Because of the DOJ’s clarification about websites constituting “places of public accommodation,” the NFB claimed that the accessibility barriers on Target’s website constituted a violation of Title III of the ADA.
The Court upheld the NFB’s claims, and Target and NFB reached a settlement in 2008. To satisfy the terms of this settlement, Target agreed to make its website accessible within a three-year period, and to pay $6 million to impacted individuals.
2008: WCAG 2.0 is published
WCAG 1.0 was far from perfect. In particular, its focus on HTML web content felt increasingly narrow as digital technology evolved rapidly at the beginning of the new millennium. WCAG 2.0, released by the W3C in 2008, introduced more robust and versatile guidelines for creating and evaluating the accessibility of digital content.
While still created primarily for HTML content, WCAG 2.0 criteria are broadly applicable to a range of web technologies. WCAG 2.0 also uses clearer language than WCAG 1.0, and automated tools and manual evaluation can test for WCAG 2.0 requirements more precisely—making it easier for regulators to identify websites that fail to conform with these standards.
Since the release of WCAG 2.0, WCAG has been updated periodically to reflect changes in digital technology and the diversity of users’ needs. WCAG 2.1 was released in 2018, and tWCAG 2.2 was released in October 2023. To learn more about WCAG, access our Must-Have WCAG Checklist.
2015 — 2020: Lawsuits proliferate as frustration mounts within the disability community
Beginning in 2015, organizations faced a tide of litigation surrounding digital accessibility. The number of web accessibility lawsuits citing Title III of the ADA jumped from just over 800 in 2017 to roughly 2,300 in 2018 and continued to climb in subsequent years. With digital technology only growing more integral to day-to-day life, the disability community was no longer willing to wait for organizations to wake up to the importance of digital accessibility. Plaintiffs increasingly took it upon themselves to hold organizations accountable for ADA compliance.
2020 — and onward: The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the real stakes of digital accessibility
The COVID-19 pandemic raised the profile of digital accessibility as a fundamental human right, bringing widespread attention to challenges that the disability community had been emphasizing for years. As digital connection replaced face-to-face interaction as a matter of public health protection, organizations and government officials could no longer deny that inaccessible websites and digital platforms—particularly those providing essential services—constituted a serious injustice.
Correspondingly, the DOJ began to involve itself in the enforcement of private settlements. In 2021 and 2022, the DOJ reached settlements with many vaccine distributors including CVS and Kroger concerning the inaccessibility of their COVID-19 vaccine registration portals.
2022: As lawsuits reach record numbers, the DOJ offers official web accessibility guidance
The number of web accessibility lawsuits filed under Title III of the ADA reached a record 3,255 in 2022 as plaintiffs continued to advocate for their rights through legal channels. Class action lawsuits accounted for many of these cases, and federal government officials showed solidarity with the disability community. After reaffirming its position that the ADA applies to websites in 2018, the DOJ issued specific web accessibility guidance in 2022, signaling more involvement and action. In fact, the DOJ recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking announcing its intent to update Title II of the ADA (which applies to state and local governments) with specific technical standards for web accessibility. Experts anticipate that similar regulations under Title III may be on the horizon.
Navigating the road ahead
Given the continued velocity of web accessibility lawsuits—and the DOJ’s growing prioritization of digital accessibility—organizations need to be more proactive than ever about making their digital experiences accessible to everyone. But legal risks aside, online inclusion is foundational to equality for the disability community in our digital world. By prioritizing digital accessibility, organizations help ensure that all people have equal access to information, services, and opportunities.
Level Access was founded with the belief that digital accessibility is a human right. Our team includes experts and advocates who have actively participated in the W3C’s WCAG working group and served on the FCC’s Disability Advisory Council. Over the years, we have regularly provided public comment on accessibility standards and regulations and supported thousands of organizations—from global enterprises to federal government agencies—in providing equitable digital experiences to all.
To learn more about our approach, engage with a member of our team today.
About Karl Groves
With 20 years of experience in web development, usability, and accessibility, Karl Groves is widely regarded as a pragmatic solution-finder and thought leader in the accessibility industry. In his role as Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access, Karl focuses on helping to improve people’s lives through technology by making accessibility easier.
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