A Deep Dive Into Accessibility Laws with Lainey Feingold
Updated: April 6, 2021
In this deep dive, we revisit Lainey Feingold’s ACCESS presentation on how to navigate the world of accessibility laws.
At ACCESS 2019, we were joined by legal rebel Lainey Feingold. Lainey is an internationally recognized disability rights lawyer and pioneer of Structured Negotiation known for negotiating landmark accessibility agreements.
Without accessibility, not everyone has access to the content, to the conversation, and society as a whole. Lainey is a fierce advocate for accessibility law as a civil right and firmly believes that the law can be used as a tool to drive accessibility to the forefront. Follow along as she takes us through key cases, court decisions, government agency activity, settlements, and other recent developments in the digital accessibility legal landscape.
Why Accessibility Laws Matter
If you ask Lainey, she’ll say that accessibility laws matter because accessibility is a civil right for disabled people. People with disabilities have a human right to participate equally in our society, and accessibility laws help to ensure that discrimination and other barriers don’t prevent inclusion.
Accessibility is about giving people with disabilities the chance to participate and upholding their right to information, security, and privacy.
Have you ever thought of accessibility in terms of safety? Think of a curb cut or the beeping sound from a walk signal at a crosswalk, both of which are accessibility features that help to keep people with disabilities safe.
How about a prescription bottle? Many people with vision loss cannot read the safety and usage instructions on a prescription bottle and require an audio version, or “talking label,” to access the critical information.
Security and Privacy
When information is not accessible, disabled people often have to ask for help to access your digital content. In many cases, such as financial or medical instances, asking for help breeches their privacy and security.
For example, if you are trying to access your financial or health information online but can’t do it yourself due to access barriers, then you’ll likely have to ask someone else to access it for you. In this case, you don’t have the same privacy and confidentiality as people without disabilities have since they can access their private information independently.
Participation and Inclusion
Safety, privacy, and security are incredibly important, but accessibility also helps to facilitate participation and inclusion. Without accessibility, people with disabilities are often left out, excluded, and inevitably discriminated against. Altogether, accessibility makes way for disabled people to exercise their human right to participate in society fully.
The Legal Foundation
In the U.S., the legal foundation is strong and is comprised of federal laws and policies, state laws and policies, and local laws and policies. Across the board, web accessibility laws are in place to ensure that entities such as colleges, businesses, and governments effectively communicate with disabled people.
Public and Private Entities
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was developed before the web was developed, but effective communication has always been a core value. If accessibility is not a part of your organization, then you’re not effectively communicating your content and therefore are not adhering to the values of the ADA.
According to the ADA, leaving people out of the digital world is discrimination. Web accessibility is crucial because access barriers effectively bar people from the digital world.
While it’s true that the ADA doesn’t specifically have regulations requiring compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), ADA regulations have always required effective communication. Effective communication means that information must be delivered in several formats, keeping people with disabilities in mind.
For instance, online videos should be captioned because deaf people can’t access videos without closed captions.
There are also several federal laws. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies and federally funded programs to ensure their digital materials are accessible. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that federal programs provide accessible digital materials. Section 508 specifically references WCAG, which requires audio description and closed captions for videos and screen-reader accessible website content.
Foundational Web Accessibility Cases
Several web accessibility cases have set the foundation for web accessibility under current accessibility laws.
How to Navigate Accessibility Laws
Lainey Feingold | ACCESS 2019
Lainey Feingold takes us through key web accessibility cases, court decisions, government agency activity, settlements, and other recent developments in the digital accessibility legal landscape.
Bank of America
The Bank of America has been a champion of digital accessibility since back in 2000 when they signed the very first agreement in the United States with the blind community to make their website accessible. They did this as a collaborative process with the blind community.
In 2007, The National Federation of the Blind sued Target because the website wasn’t accessible. The judge ruled that Target’s website had to be accessible because it is connected to a physical place (i.e., the Target stores themselves). From this case, a question surfaced: Does accessibility law apply to websites that are not connected to a physical place?
In 2012, the National Association of the Deaf brought forward a suit against Netflix for not providing adequate closed captions for their programs. The Netflix case decision was paramount because the judge ruled that Netflix had to provide closed captions even though they don’t have a physical connection to a place. This case showed that the law continues to progress over the years and sets a precedent for future cases.
The case against Winn-Dixie was the first to set a precedent that websites have to be accessible under the ADA. The outcome of the case was that the court ordered Winn-Dixie to make its website accessible. Though the case is currently out for appeal, the court will likely uphold that Winn-Dixie violated the ADA by not having an accessible site.
Commitment to Access
Common accessibility issues are found in mobile apps, third-party content, on-demand and streaming video, kiosks, and website templates. To make these channels more accessible, we must be proactive.
The best thing we can do is to commit to accessibility and include people with disabilities in user testing. Haben Girma said, “As we create new programs, we have to involve people with disabilities from the start.” This will help companies to bake accessibility into their daily activities rather than slapping it on as an afterthought.
It’s also important for companies to be transparent and to take the time to publish an accessibility statement on your website. Companies should also provide contact information for people to reach in case they run into accessibility issues. Lainey says, “If you’re silent about what you’re doing, people have no way to approach you.” Consequently, they may reach out to a lawyer instead, which is what companies want to avoid.
Lainey’s philosophy surrounding accessibility law is straightforward. She says, “The law’s not involved to be a checklist, to be a hammer, to be a punishment, and for people to be afraid. It’s there because accessibility is a civil right. Without accessibility, people don’t have access to the world that we’re in now.”
Instead of fearing accessibility laws, we should be regarding the law as a useful tool to advocate for accessibility within our own organizations and always remember that the law exists to uphold our civil rights.
Want to put more tools in your back pocket that will help you find success in your accessibility initiatives? ACCESS is a one-day event for the accessibility enthusiast or novice. There are expert-lead sessions and workshops, opportunities to network with others in the accessibility field, and a chance for growth and professional development.
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