Unbelievably, approximately twenty percent of disabled adults in the United Kingdom have not used the Web, and in the United States, disabled Americans are about three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online (23% vs. 8%), according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the fall of 2016.
Equal access to information is a fundamental human right, stated clearly in Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which declares that for people with disabilities to lead a full and independent life they must have equal access to information through the Web. This is a fundamental human right that many people are still being denied.
Web accessibility for the disabled is the only way to ensure that equal opportunities exist for everyone to participate in modern society. Even though the digital experience is crucial for total social participation, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) data collected in 2019 showed that in the United Kingdom alone, 22% of disabled adults have never used the Web, compared to 9% in the general population who’ve never used the Web. This is unacceptable.
This large disconnect stems in large part from unacceptably poor quality and accessibility of Web services for the disabled, rather than a lack of desire by disabled adults to use the Web. This is a big problem because we are moving more and more to a web-based society, and eventually most of our interaction with healthcare and social services will move to being offered only online. Lack of accessibility in websites is a major barrier for disabled adults being able to have full participation in a digital society.
When the ADA (American’s With Disabilities Act) Title III was enacted in 1990 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations, (businesses and public/government services) the focus was on ensuring access to physical locations. Almost thirty years later a lot has changed but the ADA has not. Even though the internet has become a fundamental part of daily life, there is no specific language addressing it in the ADA because the internet was not invented when the ADA was written.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has repeatedly held that while ADA Title III language does not specifically address the internet, it does apply to websites of “public accommodations”, even in the absence of affirmative regulations. Of course in the absence of formal regulations, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. As was to be expected the courts have taken on a more prominent role in determining if and how the ADA applies to websites and mobile apps, and which specific standards should be targeted for compliance.
This has led to ever-increasing, costly litigation for corporate entities, educational institutions and even governments. In the absence of clear regulations, people with disabilities and their advocates continue to resort to litigation in order to achieve access to information and services on the web.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organization for the Internet. These guidelines are followed more or less around the world and are a de facto framework to work with until the ADA is updated and new laws created.
Ultimately, what is most important for us to do in order to improve and achieve real inclusivity is to create a comprehensive range of online public services that give the maximum help possible to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups to become fully engaged citizens.