I was 9 years old when the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] was passed in July 1990. It did not have an immediate impact on my life because, as a totally blind child, I already had access to a ‘free and appropriate’ public K-12 education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed before the ADA, in 1973. But in 1998 when I went away to college, I counted on the ADA to allow me access to accommodations like exams in Braille and permission to have my brand-new guide dog come to class with me.
Because of the ADA, and probably a whole lot of luck, I have never had difficulty getting or keeping a job. But one barrier that a future amendment to the ADA could address is accessibility to the digital world.
Employers are increasingly aware of their obligations related to the ADA and, slowly but surely, the benefits of employing people with disabilities.
We tend to be loyal, hardworking employees who perform at least as well as our peers. And in 99% of cases, if we need any accommodations at work at all, they are minimal and low cost. Agencies such as the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, where I worked for 12 wonderful years, can help employers cover the cost of accommodations and provide technical assistance to help an employee with a disability be successful on the job.
“Accessible design is not difficult. It just takes a little bit of basic knowledge by developers and designers – knowledge that is typically not taught in web development and digital media classes.”
I now work as director of the Office of Disability Resources at Carnegie Mellon University – an office that did not exist prior to passage of the ADA.
Because of the ADA, ever-increasing numbers of students with significant disabilities across the United States are able to attend college and receive the accommodations they need to do well. My office alone has seen a 91% increase in the number of students with disabilities since I began at CMU in 2016 (from 550 students in 2016 to 1,050 currently).
Thanks to the accommodations the ADA affords them — from academic adjustments to aids and other services — CMU students with disabilities perform just as well academically as their non-disabled peers, and they graduate with the knowledge and skills to be very successful at work and obtain accommodations on the job if they need them.
While the ADA has been a crucial tool for us in having more equal access to education, employment and places of public accommodation, we still have far to go as a culture and a nation.
When it was passed in 1990, the internet only existed in research departments at universities, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist at all. So the ADA did not address accessibility of digital content such as websites, apps and electronic documents. As a consequence, the digital world is generally not designed with accessibility in mind.
I use some pretty cool technology called a screen reader to access the computer and my iPhone; it speaks what’s on the screen and can also display it in Braille. But for the screen reader to be effective, digital materials have to be designed accessibly.
Catherine Getchell in her backyard in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)
Accessible design is not difficult. It just takes a little bit of basic knowledge by developers and designers – knowledge that is typically not taught in web development and digital media classes. For example, links on websites and controls on apps need to be labeled with text, not just images. A form on a website needs to be operable via the keyboard and not require a mouse. The mouse, being an inherently visual interface, is not usable by individuals without vision.
Digital accessibility is important for people with all kinds of disabilities, not just blindness. My colleague, Greg Traynor, works with many individuals with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, who need to have electronic text spoken aloud to comprehend it. If their textbook or employee handbook is an image-based PDF, their text-to-speech software won’t be able to read it to them. My colleague who is deaf was required to watch a training video for work, but the video did not have closed captions, so she was unable to complete the training.
Now that digital content is so heavily integrated into all of our daily lives and livelihoods, lack of digital accessibility has huge financial and other implications for us — such as inability to apply for a job or shop online.
As an example, I applied for a job a few years ago. The employer was ready to hire me, and the final step was the background check that required me to complete an electronic form. The form required that I place my mouse pointer into a box on the screen and digitally sign it, moving the mouse as though I were physically signing with a pen. I could not access the box using the keyboard, nor could I use a mouse to sign the form. But there was no alternative signature method such as typing my name and date, or even uploading a picture of my signature. I was placed in the very uncomfortable position of having to contact the employer before I even received the job offer, to let them know that part of their hiring process was inaccessible and I would need an accommodation. Another employer might have decided then and there to hire someone else. Fortunately, as soon as they were made aware of the problem, this employer came up with another approach for completing the background check, and all went well.
“Now that digital content is so heavily integrated into all of our daily lives and livelihoods, lack of digital accessibility has huge financial and other implications for us — such as inability to apply for a job or shop online.”
Since the ADA has been amended numerous times since its passage in 1990, why has digital accessibility not been incorporated?
The answer is that the courts, the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress have so far failed to take the stance that websites are places of public accommodation, which would mean they’d be covered under ADA Title 3. You can walk into a Domino’s Pizza brick-and-mortar store and receive accommodations if you are a person with a disability. But the ADA does not say that the Domino’s Pizza website is also a place of public accommodation. So when a blind man sued Domino’s in 2016 over its inaccessible website because he could not use it to order a pizza, Domino’s claimed that its website is not subject to the ADA and doesn’t have to be accessible.
It seems logical that if Domino’s physical locations need to be accessible for people with disabilities, so does their website. But thousands of similar cases are litigated in courthouses all across the country each year. Companies that have lost digital accessibility cases or paid large settlements recently include Winn Dixie supermarket chain (2017), Five Guys burger chain (2017), Nike (2017), Harvard and MIT (2019), and Churchill Downs racetrack and AmeriServ bank right here in Western Pennsylvania (2017).
Most courts have found companies in violation of the ADA if their digital presence is inaccessible. But until either the Supreme Court agrees to hear a case or the Department of Justice takes a stand, parts of the digital world will remain inaccessible to people with disabilities. We may not be able to order that pizza, read our e-textbook or apply for a job online.
I am optimistic that within my lifetime, in a different political climate, digital accessibility will be incorporated into the ADA, bringing us one of many crucial steps closer to full equal access for individuals with disabilities. Until then, we will continue to educate others, advocate for ourselves and celebrate the small victories we have.
Catherine Getchell is director of the Office of Disability Resources at Carnegie Mellon University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.