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ADA Compliance and PDF Accessibility

What is the ADA?

President Bush signing the ADA, requiring ADA complianceIn 1990, President George Bush signed into law a revolutionary anti-discrimination law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This act is “a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.” Discrimination as defined by the ADA includes any place that is open to or provides services for the general public, including places like grocery stores, libraries, restaurants, gyms, parks, and shopping centers. It covers both visitors and employees or potential employees. In the past several years, many courts have ruled that ADA compliance requires digital “places” such as websites to be accessible as well.

The ADA is wider-reaching than the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies only to federal programs and organizations that receive federal funding. The ADA extends those protections to state and local government programs and their contractors, as well as all places of public accommodation – providing anti-discrimination protections in the private sector for the first time.

How was the ADA developed?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became the first law to prohibit discrimination in the form of exclusion or segregation based on disability within federal government agencies and recipients of federal funds. Before this law, society viewed accessibility limitations and barriers as consequences of disabilities – not of discrimination. But disability advocates needed the law to specify what that inclusion and desegregation should look like. Regulations were needed to explain how to break down physical and communication barriers to accessibility. Regulations supporting Section 504 didn’t appear until 1977. Additionally, disability rights advocates faced an uphill battle to convince courts to enforce and uphold these new regulations. Courts dismissed many of the first accessibility lawsuits.

disabled protestors on the steps of Capitol Hill

Later, Supreme Court decisions stripped away many of those civil rights, and disability advocates spent much of the 1980s working to reinstate them.  A series of “de-regulation” efforts attempted to ease regulations placed on businesses. Section 504 regulations were often among those targeted for removal.  Again disability rights advocates had to work diligently to maintain the protections they had fought so hard to achieve.

In 1988 disability rights advocates introduced a preliminary version of a bill that would extend the anti-discrimination laws from the Rehabilitation Act to cover the private sector.

Hundreds of people with disabilities alongside their friends, family members, and caregivers gave testimony before Congress about the discrimination they experienced daily. Several Senators and Representatives who were themselves disabled supported the bill. Their efforts paid off, and the ADA finally passed. The ADA made discrimination in state and local government programs and any and all public places illegal.

How is ADA compliance enforced?

Federal organizations are in charge of enforcing ADA regulations and investigating complaints against their own programs.

Agency Regulation
US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Title I of the ADA, governing anti-discrimination regulations in employment and for those seeking employment.
US Department of Transportation Transit agencies
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Telecommunication services
U.S. Department of Justice State and local government programs (Title II) and Public Accommodations (Title III)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS Title II of the ADA relating to access to programs, services, and activities receiving HHS federal financial assistance.
Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB), (The Access Board) Issues guidelines to ensure that buildings, facilities, and transit vehicles are accessible to people with disabilities.

How are digital accessibility regulations enforced?

Unlike other parts of the ADA, there is no specific language about digital accessibility regulations, making it difficult to enforce. Instead, complaints and lawsuits are often necessary to encourage organizations to comply and become accessible to everyone.

If a person with a disability is unable to access information on a website, they may notify the organization that their website is inaccessible. Ideally, that organization would respond to the complainant in a timely fashion, remove the accessibility barrier, ensure that there are no additional accessibility barriers on the website, and thank the complainant for bringing the issue to their attention, all in an amicable and cooperative manner. However, more often than not, an inaccessible contact form prevents the person with a disability from submitting a complaint. If they are able to submit the complaint, a decision-maker might never receive it or may just ignore it. People who can’t access the site become frustrated and feel their voice is unimportant or ignored.

One voice companies can’t ignore is that of a lawsuit. When website owners disregard their complaint, people with disabilities frequently resort to lawsuits to make sure the ADA is enforced. Federal courts are responsible for hearing ADA lawsuits, making them particularly unflattering for defendants, and often very, very expensive. While plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages for ADA lawsuits, they can request that defendants cover their court costs and legal fees, and those can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. That’s in addition to the cost to remediate the accessibility problem, which are at the heart of every digital accessibility settlement. Making digital resources accessible and ensuring PDF accessibility for everyone from their inception is a wise investment to prevent expensive lawsuits and reach more customers. Use your budget to ensure website and PDF accessibility, not to pay legal fees.

What do ADA regulations require of websites?

Currently, there is no specific language in the ADA about websites or the internet, but that’s because the internet was in its infancy at the time the ADA was passed. Since then, company websites have become an essential part of corporate marketing strategies and have helped marry online and in-store shopping experiences. Websites are available to the public, so every visitor must be able to access products and services listed there. Many courts have held that websites that have a nexus to physical places of public accommodation may be considered services offered by those places, and the Supreme Court has refused to even consider overturning those decisions. Some courts consider any public-facing website to be a place of public accommodation.

The general consensus is that websites and digital resources must be “accessible.” However,  that term is not specifically defined in the ADA and has continued to be vague because each website is unique and different, so accessibility will look different for each website. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will give you the most comprehensive standards for ensuring an accessible website. WCAG is considered the industry standard, though it’s not officially part of ADA regulations.

How does ADA compliance relate to PDF accessibility?

ADA compliance requires all parts of the website- including PDFs and other files on it- to be accessible to all visitors. Many websites contain PDF documents because the PDF format preserves formatting and viewers cannot edit it. While PDFs may be more convenient, they are often not accessible to people using assistive technology. Presenting information on a website that is only accessible to some visitors and not to others is considered discrimination. Even if the rest of your website is perfectly accessible, if your PDF documents are inaccessible your website is still inaccessible and can be the subject of a lawsuit.

What kinds of documents might be in PDF form?

  • Employee directories
  • Human resources manuals
  • Benefits manuals and information
  • User manuals
  • Financial reports
  • Monthly and annual budgets
  • Meeting minutes
  • Departmental reports
  • Brochures
  • Monthly statements
  • Menus of services
  • Product Catalogs
  • Calendar of events

How can you achieve ADA compliance for PDF accessibility?

The ADA does not give any specific guidelines for digital accessibility compliance, but many countries and US states have recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the industry standard for compliance. WCAG guidelines are based on four main principles- perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Not sure how to approach PDF accessibility? Check out these resources to guide your remediation process:

What is PDF Remediation?

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