Website Accessibility: What You Need to Know

Posted on Jan 20, 2016


The Americans with Disabilities Act compliance has come to the forefront of the industry after utilities across the nation received letters from a law firm demanding their websites be ADA compliant. Pittsburgh-based Carlson Lynch is threatening penalties if the utilities do not agree to their ADA website compliance plan, which they say would get them up to standards at a high cost.

All websites must be ADA compliant by 2018 according to the Department of Justice’s website. What constitutes compliance for your website is an evolving area of law and dependent on your individual situation.

So let’s go through a few steps to better understand what this means for your utility.

What is website accessibility?

The Internet has revolutionized the way many people with disabilities receive information.

Screen reading software is one of the key tools used by people who are blind to access written text, pictures and video on webpages. Most content today is published online in a format that can be read by screen reading software. This type of software will read electronic text out loud so website visitors who are blind can receive information independently.

Similarly, website visitors with motor disabilities who are unable to turn pages in a packet or book can use special keyboards or software that can control a computer with nothing more than eye movement, and adapt a computer or mobile device.

Then there are the deaf and hearing disabled website visitors. They may be able to read the screen on their own, but they are likely unable to hear audio on a web page or within a video.

The Internet and websites can be used to truly change the way people with disabilities receive information if the website is able to respond correctly to the specialized software.

What is ADA website compliance?

The growth of the Internet and digital information systems expanded the scope of ADA website consideration.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was established to protect against discrimination based on disability. Section 508 is the ADA section addressing this area. Click here to explore the Section 508 Guidelines. Section 508 is the law which applies to all Federal Agencies and organizations who do business with Federal Agencies.

On the other hand, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Website Accessibility Initiative guidelines list what websites can do to increase access for all users. These guidelines are a set of recommendations with the goal to make web-based content more accessible.

What about legal enforcement for ADA compliance?

Programs receiving federal funds may not discriminate against those with disabilities; this includes all government agencies, federally-funded projects and schools.

So where do utilities come in?

If you are a municipal owned utility, and your municipality has received any type of federal grant or federal dollars then that can be seen as a federal benefit that would require compliance.

If your utility receives power from an organization such as the Bonneville Power Administration, could that also require your compliance? So far, we are not entirely sure, as this seems to be a gray area since it is a business transaction between your organization and a government agency. Whether that transaction is classified as a benefit or assistance can be up for debate.

How about if the federal government has an office in a utility’s territory, and does business with the utility? This is another gray area.

As the law continues to develop, utilities will learn more about where they stand with compliance and what measures they need to take. As with any legal area, you should consult with your system attorney.

What are some strategies to reduce your risk?

There are, however, some general strategies that a business can follow to reduce its risk immediately and over time. This includes making a good faith effort to get websites and other digital media compliant with both ADA Section 508 Standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

In addition, those members of your staff who contribute to your website’s content should be trained on the dos and don’ts.

Get More Information.

 If you are a utility organization that has a website with Ruralite Services, or another organization, and you are interested in learning more about having a website that follows accessibility guidelines and standards, or you are interested in receiving additional training, contact Charlie Stanley, Website Solutions Manager, at CharlieS@ruralite.org or call him at the Website Support Hotline, 503-427-1414.

Sources used to gather information for this article include:

Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities;

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative 

US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

Mondaq article, “ADA Website Cases Filed in Federal Court in Pittsburgh, With More likely to Follow” by J. Colin Knisely

Martindale Article, “ADA Website Cases Filed in Federal Court in Pittsburgh, with More Likely to Follow” by J. Colin Knisely

NetReach: Section 508/WCAG

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