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Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard

From: Jamal Mazrui <empower@smart.net>
Date: Wed, 10 Jun 1998 08:25:44 -0600
Message-Id: <199806111225.IAA03492@gemini.smart.net>
To: <webwatch-l@teleport.com>, <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>, <basr-l@trace.wisc.edu>, <uaccess-l@trace.wisc.edu>, <telecom-l@trace.wisc.edu>, <vicug-l@maelstrom.stjohns.edu>, <nfbcs@nfbnet.org>, <blindtlk@nfbnet.org>, <blindlaw@nfbnet.org>
From the web page http://www.rit.edu/~easi/law/weblaw1.htm

 Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard
                    by Cynthia D. Waddell, JD
            ADA Coordinator, City of San Jose, CA USA

Although it may seem that the World Wide Web has been like the
Wild, Wild, West --where there are no laws and each frontier web
site is on its own, there are significant legal and practical
reasons for ensuring web accessibility. By web accessibility I
am referring to the design of a webpage that embraces the
requirements of Universal Design in order to ensure that all
users can access the information on the page:

     Universal Design calls for the development of
     information systems flexible enough to accommodate the
     needs of the broadest range of users of computers and
     telecommunications equipment, regardless of age or

(September 1994 National Information Infrastructure White Paper
by Susan Brummel, USGSA CITA, entitled "People with Disabilities
and the NII: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Choice;" See

Unless a web site is designed in an accessible format,
significant populations will be locked out as the World Wide Web
rapidly advances from a text-based communication format to a
robust, graphical format embracing audio and video clip tools.

Yet, the benefits of accessible web design extend beyond the
community of people with disabilities and an aging population
since it enables low technology to access high technology. There
are substantial business incentives for technology transfer in
underdeveloped countries and for populations who do not have the
"state of the art" technology. Accessible web design features
enable CD technology and videotapes to be archived with word
search capabilities due to text captioning. Even people who are
illiterate can access the Internet since screenreaders can
audibly read text out loud from accessible webpages.

As the capital of Silicon Valley, the City of San Jose is proud
to be a national leader in web accessibility implementation for
local government. This article briefly discusses specific legal
requirements for accessible web design and how the City of San
Jose developed and implemented a minimal web accessibility
standard that is now supported by the first draft international
protocol for web accessibility. In a nutshell, public policy and
legal compliance requires the removal of barriers to effective
communication and commerce. By accommodating members of our
diverse community, government can play a catalytic role in
promoting a sustainable community.

I. United States Department of Justice Policy Ruling, 9/9/96:
ADA Accessibility Requirements Apply to Internet Web Pages 10
NDLR 240

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered
entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services
where necessary to ensure effective communication with
individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a
fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue
burden. See 28 C.F.R. 36.303; 28 C.F.R. 35.160. Auxiliary aids
include taped texts, Brailled materials, large print materials,
captioning and other methods of making audio and visual media
available to people with disabilities.

The policy ruling states that ADA Titles II and III require
State and local governments and the business sector to provide
effective communication whenever they communicate through the
Internet. The effective communication rule applies to covered
entities using the Internet for communications regarding their
programs, goods or services since they must be prepared to offer
those communications via an accessible medium.

Specifically addressing the needs of people with visual
disabilities, this policy ruling points out that providing a
text format rather than a graphical format assures accessibility
to the Internet for individuals using screenreaders. Without
special coding, a text browser will only display the word
"image" when it reads a graphic image. Moreover, if the graphic
is essential to navigating the site (such as a navigational
button or arrow) or if it imparts vital information (such as a
table or image map) the user can get stuck and not be able to
move or understand the information provided. As one user put it:

     When blind people use the internet and come across
     unfriendly sites, we aren't surfing, we are crawling
     ....Imagine hearing pages that say, 'Welcome to
     ...[image].' 'This is the home of ... [image].' 'Link,
     link, link.' It is like trying to use Netscape with
     your monitor off and the mouse unplugged. See how far
     you'll get.

(NY Times Cybertimes, 12/1/96)

Whereas the Internet in its infancy was only a text-based
medium, the current graphical environment and problems
associated with Portable Document Format (PDF) and hyperlinks
designed as animated gifs are currently barriers on the World
Wide Web. As technology erects additional new barriers, such as
video-streaming and audio, people with hearing loss will also be
impacted. Internet kiosks will need the flexibility and
interoperability that accessible web design provides in order to
be accessible to our communities.

Therefore, as government and businesses increasingly depend on
the convenience of the Internet as a vehicle for programs, goods
or services, the more it is important that accessible web design
be addressed. Accessible web design enables effective
communication and saves government resources since documents can
be readily available, requests for ADA Alternate Document
Formats can be satisfied, and Internet/Intranet access for
employees with disabilities can be provided.

II. United States Department of Education, Office of Civil
Rights, Settlement Letters: Docket Number 09-95-2206 (1996
Letter )& 09-97-2002 (1997 Letter)

Not surprisingly, web accessibility issues are now being faced
by educational institutions. Library reference services are
being transformed by the efficiency of Internet access to
information systems and search engines. Professors are teaching
long distance learning courses over the Internet and even if a
student is physically in class, homework assignments and
resources are being posted on class homepages. Yet, even if a
library terminal has assistive computer technology installed for
students with disabilities, Internet research by students with
disabilities is not possible with inaccessible web page design.

In a complaint by a student that a university had failed to
provide access to the Internet, the Office of Civil Rights,
United States Department of Education (OCR) discussed what was
meant to provide effective communication. In a nutshell,

     [T]he issue is not whether the student with the
     disability is merely provided access, but the issue is
     rather the extent to which the communication is
     actually as effective as that provided to others.
     Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act of
     1990] also strongly affirms the important role that
     computer technology is expected to play as an
     auxiliary aid by which communication is made effective
     for persons with disabilities.

(Pages 1-2, 1996 Letter; 28 C.F.R. 35.160(a))

In further clarifying what is meant by "effective
communication," OCR has held that the three basic components of
effective communication are: "timeliness of delivery, accuracy
of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium
appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities
of the individual with the disability." (Page 1, 1997 Letter)

OCR also points out that the courts have held that a public
entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it only
responds on an ad- hoc basis to individual requests for
accommodation. There is an affirmative duty to develop a
comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary
aids or services. Moreover, the community of persons with
disabilities is required to be consulted in the development of
this policy. See Tyler v. City of Manhattan, 857 F. Supp. 800
(D.Kan. 1994).

Of particular interest is the analogy OCR draws between the
rationale for bringing an existing building up to code for
access and the purchase of new technology for information
systems. For example, buildings built prior to access laws are
governed by "program access" requirements and remodeling
triggers the requirement to install certain accessible
architectural features.

Similarly, the effective communication requirement imposes a
duty to solve barriers to information access that the entity's
purchasing choices create. Whenever existing technology is
"upgraded" by a new technology feature, it is important to
ensure that the new technology either improves accessibility or
is compatible with existing assistive computer technology. For
example, web-authoring software programs that erect barriers in
their coding of webpages fall under this scrutiny.

Lastly, OCR states that when an entity selects software programs
and/or hardware equipment not adaptable for people with
disabilities, "the subsequent substantial expense of providing
access is not generally regarded as an undue burden when such
cost could have been significantly reduced by considering the
issue of accessibility at the time of the initial selection."
(Page 2, 1997 Letter) Therefore, all technology improvements
must take into account the removal of barriers and ensure that
new barriers to access do not occur. Covered entities preparing
to retrofit their web sites need to be aware of this issue.

III. City of San Jose World Wide Web Page Accessibility Standard

In response to the monitoring of ADA Internet complaints and the
need to incorporate City ADA implementation policies, the City
of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard was
developed in 1996. (See
http://www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/oaacc/disacces.html) By integrating
the requirements of the ADA and applying Universal principles,
we have ensured the widest public access to City government
information and services. Currently these standards are being
incorporated into our web site and are subject to change as
technology advances to solve these problems and integrate access
tool kits in web- authoring tools.

By June 1996 seven minimum requirements were identified to
ensure web accessibility:

1. Provide an Access Instruction Page for Visitors (includes
email hyperlink for visitors to communicate problems with web
page accessibility)
2. Provide support for text browsers
3. Attach "Alt" tags to graphic images so that screenreaders can
identify the graphic
4. Hyperlink photographs with descriptive text "D"
5. Caption all audio and video clips by using "CC" hyperlinks
6. Provide alternative mechanisms for on-line forms (such as
email or voice/TTY phone numbers)
7. Avoid access barriers such as the posting of documents in
PDF, table, newspaper or frame format or requiring visitors to
download software. If posting in PDF, the HTML text or ASCII
file must also be posted.

The City of San Jose web accessibility standards were adopted by
the Board of Supervisors for the County of Santa Clara in March
1997 and have been designated as a "best practices" model by the
League of California Cities as well as the federal government.
Named to the "Top 25 Women on the Web" by Webgrrls
International, I am pleased to support the efforts of the
technology industry to extend the benefits of the Web to the
global community. With the launch in April 1997 of the Web
Accessibility Initiative by the World Wide Web Consortium,
hopefully web accessibility will soon become as common as an
accessible building. Recently, the first draft guidelines for an
international protocol was announced (see
http://www.w3.org/Press/19948/WAI-Guide) and a free web
accessibility diagnostic has been upgraded to perform validation
of web pages (see http://www.cast.org/bobby).


Without the application of ADA requirements to the Internet, new
barriers to effective communication and global commerce will be
erected that will have a discriminatory impact upon individuals
with disabilities. Accessible web design should be mandated so
that everyone, regardless of age or disability, or the
limitations of their computer equipment, can participate in the
benefits of the World Wide Web.

Additional Resources:

"Electronic Curbcuts: How to Build an Accessible Web Site" by
Leslie M. Campbell and Cynthia D. Waddell, CAPED Communique,
California Association on Postsecondary Education and
Disability, Spring 1997 http:// www.prodworks.com/ilf/w5bcw.htm

"Electronic Curbcuts for Government Web Sites: Making Your Web
Site Accessible" by Cynthia D. Waddell, ADA Update, Fall 1997,
National League of Cities

Web Accessibility Initiative, World Wide Web Consortium

Bobby, a web site that will perform a free accessibility
diagnostic and make suggestions http://www.cast.org/bobby/

Starling Access Services- a web site that provides excellent
tools for webmasters http://www.igs.net/~starling/acc/index.htm

More Than Screen Deep: Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the
Nation's Information Infrastructure, Computer Science and
Telecommunications Board, Commission on Physical Sciences,
Mathematics, and Applications, National Research Council;
National Academy Press 1997 Full text posted at

End of Document
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