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A look at the ADA thirty-two years later

Kimberly Springs

Jeff Rodgers

July 30 10 min read

By Kimberly Spriggs 7/30/2022

On July 26, 2022, the Americans Disability Act (ADA) turned 32, and a lot has happened in those three-plus decades, yet many will argue that it’s not enough. The ADA, in its right, is an essential law with a long history of disability laws in its wake spanning over 200 years. These earlier disability laws enacted in the United States go as far back as 1776, after the American Revolution. Soldiers who suffered significant injuries were financially subsidized by the first pension law, which paid for half pay. This was the first disability law enacted here in the United States. Our country is rooted in war and liberties hard fought and won. In those two hundred plus years, are these laws really helping? Are we observing them because it’s the law, or as a colleague stated, “It’s the right thing to do…?” From WWI veterans returning home to the March 12, 1990 ‘Capitol Crawl’ and all the laws in between, we are still waging the battle of ethics.

The disabled community is the largest minority group – in the world. They have the spending power of $13 Trillion globally in discretionary income; they are the voice of inclusion and equality. However long it takes, whatever the costs, we need to include all people in our communities, our schools, our offices, our places of worship, and businesses. Yet this group is still being marginalized and bullied by everyday people, businesses, politicians, and communities, not caring to understand what the law means for them and their loved ones. Our laws sometimes fall on the people to enact.

The pandemic ushered in a wave of online shopping and digital access to more content and platforms, yet people with disABILITIES have been excluded from many of these exciting advances. In its fledgling state in 1990, the ADA failed to recognize that the internet would be the fabric of everyday life. So, how has the ADA held up for 32 years later?

ADA then, and now

Rewind to July 26, 1990. The ADA transformed into a relevant law for one of the largest minority groups, paving the way to equal rights and inclusion. This inclusion is not just about removing physical barriers as outlined in the 1950s when disabled veterans and people with disabilities began the barrier-free movement; the ADA also transformed lives for individuals with disabilities besides physical limitations. The ADA, at its core, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in several areas under Title III; this prohibition generally means that “places of public accommodation” must be accessible to members of the public with disabilities. Places of public accommodation include, but are not limited to, restaurants, hotels, theaters, grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, retail stores, airports, museums, libraries, parks – and to an extent, digital access.

President George H.W. Bush, signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law July 26, 1990.
President George H.W. Bush, signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law July 26, 1990.

As President Bush stated during his speech, “Our success with this act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These words have been our guide for more than two centuries as we’ve labored to form our more perfect union. But tragically, for too many Americans, the blessings of liberty have been limited or even denied.”

Click the following link to Watch the full 22-minute video.

The blessings of liberty have been limited or denied due to digital barriers. In all these accommodations, where do digital barrier-free accommodations come into consideration? The ADA may not clearly define digital accessibility compliance. Still, case law has borne out that “public accommodation” extends to websites that facilitate the use of goods, services, or advantages of a public place (e.g., a retail store, hotel, restaurant, theater).

Digital barrier-free accommodations

A digital barrier is when you can’t access digital content you need to or want to access when you want to. Most people experience this when the internet is down, but individuals with disabilities experience this regularly with inaccessible technology that cannot be made accessible immediately. This is a digital barrier.

When the ADA became law in 1990, the Internet was in its early stages, and it is no surprise that Congress failed to foresee the need to address the accessibility of the internet into this law. As the beginning of the internet took off with information sharing and website development, we move forward at light-speed to in-home PCs, laptops, tablets, smart devices, wearable smart devices, social media platforms and live interaction, audio and video streaming, complex web designs, unique payment models, interactive shopping experiences, mobile environments, (AR/VR/MR) altered, virtual, and mixed reality concepts, online and at-home video gaming, including any and all other digital spaces conceptualized that have not taken the time nor consideration that for a vast group of people, these are digital barriers.

What is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility and the ADA refer to the inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to websites, digital tools, and technologies, by people with disabilities. In Canada, the Government of Ontario has established five identified barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities that sum it up, they are:

  1. Attitudinal (our perceptions).
  2. Organizational (systemic and internal).
  3. Architectural (physical).
  4. Information and communication (sharing and exchanging of ideas).
  5. Technology (all tech is considered potential barriers).

Take your pick; I am sure you have encountered at least one of these five and have known someone with a barrier to them. Like your aging parents or grandparents having difficulty reading the mobile phone or understanding how to interact with it or calling to ask for help with the pc because they don’t understand it. These are barriers. Now take it to the next level with people with physical or visual problems; again, it can be age-related, or it can be someone with physical limitations using assistive technology devices to help them interact with a website or shop online for groceries; these devices need to read the website and often cannot. The screen readers hit digital barriers like an image that is not ALT+Text to describe it or keyboard traps that frustrate the user, ultimately making the user want to leave. As a society and for this blog, digital designers and web developers have ignored the ADA laws that help include and raise the standard of living by making our digital inclusion a priority.

For more information on digital accessibility, your can check out my post, Web Accessibility

There are currently over 350 million websites in the United States, and only around 2% are accessible to users with disabilities. In the United States, people with disabilities make up about 20% of the total population. This exclusion is leaving 1 in 5 individuals from utilizing the internet’s full potential.

The digital barriers or digital non-inclusions can fall under the ADA law because the internet is considered a ‘public space.’ Federal district courts have interpreted the ADA differently and may look at a digital nexus to a physical business. Regardless, pushbacks from mainstream businesses aware of digital compliancy ignore the law. Some of our research has found clients and lawyers citing the changes necessary for disabled users to be fruitless, and the course of serial lawsuits is jamming up a process to help the underserved. The World Wide Web is one of the most significant technological developments of the modern age, becoming an essential part of most of our everyday life and necessary to all businesses—small, medium, and large, and only 2% are accessible.

That is where W3C, WCAG and 508 come in.

WCAG and W3C® let’s POUR on Accessibility

In October 1994, Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) or the internet, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Laboratory for Computer Science [MIT/LCS] in collaboration with CERN where they developed common protocols that promoted the World Wide Web’s evolution.

By 1995, as the “” era was booming, and internet-based companies were firing up on the scene it was realized that more needed to be addressed to manage accessibility in terms of online barriers. At the second International Conference on the World-Wide Web in Chicago, Tim Berners-Lee first mentioned the term ‘disability access’ in a keynote speech after attending a pre-conference workshop led by Mike Paciello, an influential figure in the accessibility industry still to this day, who addressed accessibility barriers at that time. Shortly after the conference, Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden, a pioneer in the field of technology and its relation to accessibility, compiled and released the first web accessibility guideline (WAG) in 1995.

By 1999, over 38 distinct web access guidelines followed from numerous authors and organizations over the next few years and combined in the Unified Web Site Accessibility Guidelines compiled by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was Version 8 of the Unified Web Site Accessibility Guidelines, published in 1998 that served as the starting point and the WCAG 1.0 was published and became a W3C recommendation. WCAG 1.0 consisted of 14 guidelines defining the general principles of accessible design, containing the essence of web accessibility, these guidelines cover the basic theme of web accessibility associated with one or more checkpoints; describing how to apply that guideline to particular webpage features while providing multiple recommendations for utilizing those rules to different web page features. This was later superseded by WCAG 2.0.

What does the term POUR mean in the context of Web Accessibility?

  • Perceivable: “Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.”
  • Operable: “User interface components and navigation must be operable.”
  • Understandable: “Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.”
  • Robust: “Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.”

These WCAG criteria and levels known as A, AA, and AAA are the backbone of the WCAG which is an evolving set of guidelines that help access to digital content.

WCAG 1.0, the WCAG 1.0 were published and became a W3C recommendation on May 5, 1999. They have since been superseded by WCAG 2.0. and WCAG 2.1 became a W3C Recommendation since June 2018. Soon, WCAG 2.2 will be released in the fall of 2022, and the WCAG 3.0 “Silver” is in the works.

508 in 1998…

In 1998, the ADA still applied to the commercial world and the physical environment that is constructed or modified by human activity, it includes homes, schools, workplaces, parks or recreation areas, green-ways, business areas, and transportation systems. It took a while to establish that the ADA was applicable to the digital world as well and in 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was updated to address accessibility.

The strategy of Section 508 is to harness purchasing power of the Federal government to select products that were more accessible over those found less accessible, this incentivized industries to tackle enduring accessibility gaps.

On January 18, 2018, Section 508 was updated to address changes in technology since the previous 2000 revision. These new standards surpassed previous legislation’s ability to eliminate barriers in new technologies and are more consistent with other accessibility standards across the U.S.

Section 508 is important if you want to do business with the Federal government, and WCAG guidelines, in the most current version, will the internet achieve greater accessibility success – opening the internet to all, with fair rights, and inclusivity.

How to achieve digital accessibility and ADA Compliance?

The answer is simple. If you want to make sure that your website is accessible and inclusive for all users, then you need to invest in your digital accessibility and a professional team that can handle it, especially if your website needs to be legally compliant and up to industry standard.