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Website Accessibility and the Law

An overview of North American web accessibility legislation

by mangrove team
published on September 7, 2023
A digital blueprint drawing of a judge’s gavel on a black background.

It’s critical to ensure that everyone can use your website; first and foremost, it’s the ethical thing to do. Second, it’s good for business, and finally, it could keep you out of legal trouble. With growing awareness about disability issues and access to the web, jurisdictions worldwide have either enacted or are in the process of enacting web accessibility laws. 

In this final article in our five-part accessibility series, we’ll provide an overview of accessibility legal considerations in the U.S. and Canada. You can find the other articles in this series at the following links:

Website accessibility mandates are here — or on the horizon

Virtually all organizations want to reach the largest audience possible. And, it’s impossible to argue that people with a disability shouldn’t enjoy the same access to the web most of us depend upon for daily life. Still, some organizations might get the final push to become digitally accessible when they learn of the potential legal consequences of not doing so.

Several jurisdictions in North America and worldwide either have legislation mandating web accessibility or it is coming soon. In some jurisdictions, such as New York State, a business could be in violation of accessibility legislation regardless of where it is located in the world. So, if someone in New York City uses a website based in Toronto, Canada, that website must meet the state’s accessibility standards. 

The Domino’s Pizza case in the U.S. is often cited as the springboard for litigation against several other companies whose sites and apps were inaccessible to disabled customers. The successful case against the pizza chain was started by Guillermo Robles, a blind man who sued the company in 2019 when he could not order a pizza via its website and app using a screen reader. 

Every jurisdiction’s legislation is unique. However, mandates regarding website accessibility universally reference W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). For each guideline, there are three levels of testable success criteria: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.

United States: Americans with Disabilities Act and state legislation

In the United States, several different pieces of legislation apply to website accessibility at the state and federal levels. Their evolution and path to enforcement have a long and winding history, as outlined by this Search Engine Journal post, Website Accessibility & the Law: Why Your Website Must Be Compliant. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) is civil rights legislation that applies to state and local governments (Title II) and businesses open to the public (Title III). While the ADA does not explicitly address web accessibility, websites and applications are usually considered part of a business. 

Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act sets out website accessibility requirements for federal agencies and their vendors (those doing business on the agencies’ behalf). Those who do not comply are at legal risk of fines up to $150,000 and loss of federal funding.

Federal websites must comply with the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, which reinforces ADA requirements for federal public websites.

Many states have adopted legislation based on these federal regulations and standards. California and New York are examples of states that have human rights code legislation that runs parallel to the ADA, reinforcing private sector compliance with website accessibility standards.

Canada: Accessible Canada Act and provincial legislation

In Canada, several pieces of legislation apply to accessibility and align with the Canadian Human Rights Act and provincial human rights codes.

The Canadian federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) in 2019, which aims to make organizations under federal jurisdiction barrier-free by 2040. The act established The Accessibility Standards Canada Development Organization to create specific standards for nine priorities, including information and communication technologies.

Several Canadian provinces have also passed accessibility legislation that extends to public sector and private organizations, including Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia. Each jurisdiction has specific timelines for standards development and compliance. 

Manitoba is one of the provinces further ahead on its accessibility compliance deadlines. The provincial government had to be in compliance with web accessibility standards by May 1, 2023. Public sector organizations must comply by May 1, 2024, and the private sector must comply by 2025. As anyone who runs an organization knows, these dates are not far away.

Make it accessible for all the right reasons

Digital domains have become inextricably linked with carrying out the necessary activities of daily life. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes this reality and identifies access to information and communications technologies as a human right. Jurisdictions worldwide are recognizing this right by enacting laws to ensure that the web is a place everyone can use. Many organizations are taking the lead in making their websites and digital products accessible because it’s the right thing to do and because there are huge gains in opening their doors to a wider audience.  In cases where that’s not happening, accessibility legislation is welcome and necessary.

Please note that we are not legal experts. To learn more about the accessibility legislation in your region, we encourage you to go online and reach out to the relevant parties. What we can help you with is understanding the international WCAG standard and how well your current website conforms. A path towards compliance and reaching your full audience potential are within reach. Let us know if we can help.

A Certified B Corp, Mangrove is a woman-owned website design and development company with a diverse, talented team distributed around the globe. We’ve been building websites since 2009 that amplify the work of change-making organizations and increase the competitive power of businesses owned by historically marginalized people.

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