How to Ensure Your Governments Website is ADA Compliant

By Mark Friesen, Director of Marketing, Civic Plus
The internet has broadened the ability of local governments to engage constituents. It allows for wider reach, faster publishing, customization of content and 24/7 access. Every citizen in your community should have equitable access to valuable local government information. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established specific requirements applicable to all government websites to ensure that citizens with disabilities are capable of receiving important information they need from their government leaders. Familiarizing yourself with federal regulations and compliance best practices not only helps you reach more citizens, but it could protect your municipality from possible litigation.

Compliance Requirements
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 generally require that state and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, activities and information. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically applies to websites and other digital properties. It requires all Federal agencies that develop, procure, maintain or use electronic and information technology to give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others.

In addition to federal requirements, public entities are encouraged to comply with global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which encompass and surpass Section 508 requirements. The goal of WCAG is to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and governments. WCAG is a technical standard that follows 12 primary guidelines aimed at ensuring all digital content is developed in a format that is accessible for all viewers.

Legal Ramifications
Aside from providing an optimized experience for all digital users, there are potential legal and financial consequences for non-compliance. Citizens and employees are enabled to file lawsuits against municipalities that are in violation of the ADA and Section 508 regulations. Many such lawsuits have been brought against municipalities of all sizes over the past decade, with citizens and employees filing litigation to make the access of municipal website content fully accessible to the disabled.

For example, in 2007 the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and three blind state workers filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas and Oracle, its human resource software vendor, to make online employment tools accessible to those with visual disabilities. Similarly, in 2011 an employee of Montgomery County, Maryland's Department of Health and Human Services filed a lawsuit against the county for unlawful discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The suit was filed when the county purchased a new database program that was not accessible to the visually impaired and the plaintiff's inability to utilize the new software resulted in her being demoted to a support specialist role.

Compliance Best Practices
When considering the accessibility of your website, keep in mind that every element of site functionality and every piece of content needs to be available to people with disabilities in an accessible format on the same terms that it is available to non-disabled citizens, 24/7, without cost, inconvenience, or delay.

Consider the following best practices:

 Ensure all HTML code includes elements such as alt tags, captions or long descriptions to assist screen readers.
 Incorporate skip navigation to allow individuals using screen readers to bypass navigation links and jump to the start of the web page content.
 Replace "click here" links with descriptive links that provide clear navigation detail.
 Label table rows and headers of each data cell by using HTML so a person using a screen reader can understand the information.
 Enable text adjustments to allow individuals with low vision the ability to use specific color and font settings when they access the internet.
 Ensure video is optimized for the visual and hearing impaired by providing audio descriptions and captions. Include HTML versions of documents since screen readers cannot access and read PDFs.
 Minimize blinking or flashing animations on pages to decrease the chances of seizures and to limit distractions for the visually impaired.

Protecting the Rights of All Citizens
As a leader in local government, you have developed a shared sense of community that aims to inform and protect all citizens and employees. In today's digitally-focused society, offering accessible digital content is an absolute requirement of municipal leadership. Without tools and resources to make content accessible to those with physical impairments, citizens may not be able to submit or request data or access important forms and critical information in times of emergency. In addition, inaccessible tools may impede an employee's ability to perform their job duties or may unfairly disqualify otherwise viable candidates for employment.

Website compliance is not a one-time exercise. It requires constant attention and awareness. As you add new systems and digital tools, gaining feedback from those with impairments early in the process will protect your municipality from potential legal consequences and more importantly, it will protect employees and citizens from the disadvantages of inaccessible resources. 

Steps Toward Compliance 
 If you believe that some of your current internal or external systems are not compliant, the worst decision you can make is to take a “wait and see” approach. The Federal Government is expected to begin scrutinizing government website compliance regulations more closely. To avoid potential complaints, or, at worst, litigation, take proactive steps to bring your website into compliance.

 Identify a website design and development partner that specializes in ADA compliance requirements. A partner with experience meeting the compliance needs of municipalities will be bestequipped to help ensure all best practices are being followed, and that the highest standards are being met. Any website partner that you work with should offer proven methods to future-proof your website so when updates are made and as digital technology and digital tools evolve, you never have to worry about falling out of compliance.