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The Real Reason Local Governments are Facing More ADA Non-Compliance Fines

Written by Don Torrez

Perceived redesign costs, unknowledgeable website design partners, and limited maintenance resources are holding too many municipalities back from ADA compliance.

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Your community would never think to build a new office building without installing a wheelchair accessible ramp. Nor would it disallow a visually-impaired child to be accompanied by his or her seeing eye dog during an afternoon recreation activity. For all of the accommodations that your local government enforces for the approximate 19 percent of the non-institutionalized citizens living with a disability or physical impairment, why should accessibility and inclusion stop when a citizen moves from interacting in the physical world to the digital world?

Today, more than ever before, local governments are meeting the expectations of digitally-minded citizens by providing a higher number of digital self-service solutions. The days of walking into city hall to obtain a building permit or dog license are being replaced with mobile-responsive online form submissions and citizen request management tools that can turn a Tweet into a service request. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is also evolving as technology, and citizen engagement interactions evolve.

Examples of High-Risk Non-Compliance

In 2017, a refresh to Section 508 of the ADA expanded on the public sector compliance guidelines for digital citizen communications. While Section 508 of the ADA points public entities to the Web Content Accessibility Guideline’s (WCAG 2.0) detailed sections A and AA as established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) criteria to determine accessibility compliance, municipalities wondering at a glance where they stand should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are live streaming or recorded videos of public proceedings available with closed captioning functionality for the hearing impaired?
  • Does the website auto-play videos that a user with a vision impairment or physical disability would be unable to control?
  • Does the website include brightly flashing animations that may put an individual with a neurological disorder at risk of experiencing a seizure?
  • Are layered or juxtaposed colors of a high enough contrast to be discernible to colorblind individuals?
  • Are the website’s images saved with descriptive alt tags that would describe them in detail to an individual utilizing a screen reader?

>>For a more detailed assessment of your website’s current accessibility risk, this checklist outlines WCAG A and AA criteria, or you can obtain a free website accessibility scan and customized compliance report.

 The Financial Implications of Non-Compliance

The consequences of digital ADA non-compliance can be costly. Entities may be fined up to $75,000 for an initial ADA violation and $150,000 for subsequent violations. While some city and county governments have moved quickly to enhance their digital offerings to meet WCAG 2.0 A and AA guidelines, too many others, however, have not. For public institutions that exist to serve citizens equally, lack of accommodations in the digital sphere has been met with understandable citizen resistance and growing legal actions.

An Increase in Municipal ADA Compliance Lawsuits

Any municipality that believes their non-compliance cannot put them at risk of financial penalties—regardless of their jurisdiction and its associated laws—should know that across the country, lawsuits associated with digital ADA compliance are on the rise. Since 2011, more than 142 municipalities were sued on the basis of accessibility non-compliance. Federal lawsuits are on the rise as well, with the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripling in 2018 compared to the year prior, to 2,258 suits. Municipalities are not only vulnerable to lawsuits from local citizens who are seeking fair access. According to many reports, serial plaintiffs are browsing the Internet, seeking violations in a variety of public and private sector industries. Recently, it has been municipalities that have become easy targets for those searching for violations and seeking injunctive relief, and even monetary damages.

So far in early 2019, a significant number of municipalities in Florida specifically, have come under attack, a growing trend that began in 2018. For example, a legally blind Miami resident has filed nearly 200 lawsuits in Florida and across the country on the basis that government agencies and private sector entities are in violation of the ADA by not taking steps to ensure that documents on their websites are accessible. In October of 2018, Orange County, Florida settled a lawsuit filed by the resident, agreeing to make all its information on its websites accessible to individuals with vision disabilities by 2022. Without admitting to wrongdoing, the municipality also agreed to pay the plaintiff $19,000 to cover legal fees and damages. The Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s office also settled a lawsuit with the same plaintiff for $9,500 over its county website. Martin County, Florida reached a $16,000 settlement with the plaintiff in July, and  St. Lucie County settled for $10,500. The list goes on.

Minimizing Exposure Without Solving the Problem

As a stop-gap measure to protecting themselves from lawsuits, some municipalities have begun removing content that they believe may not be accessible. For example, the cities of Lake Mary, Longwood, and Oviedo Florida have reportedly temporarily removed public documents from their websites to protect themselves from ADA lawsuits. While this may help minimize their exposure to the types of red flag content that plaintiffs and their lawyers can easily identify as accessibility violations, it does not address the true need and responsibility of local governments, which is to provide equitable access to content for its citizenry.

Other municipalities have chosen to take the steps necessary to improve their website’s accessibility. The City of Portsmouth, VA for example, wanted to ensure the highest level of digital access for all its citizens.

“We are here to serve all the citizens of the City of Portsmouth,” said Daniel Jones, City of Portsmouth Chief Information Officer. “That includes citizens who are technology-advanced, citizens who are less familiar with digital media, and citizens who rely on assistive technology devices to consume digital media. We believe all citizens should have access to our City’s resources, so while we were watching the conversations regarding ADA compliance as it was impacting federal websites, we reached out to our CivicPlus account manager to ask if there was an integrated solution that could be incorporated into our current platform.”

>>Click here to read the full story about the City of Portsmouth’s approach to accessibility.

Why Don’t More Municipalities Voluntarily Comply with Section 508?

Why aren’t more communities taking the same approach as the City of Portsmouth and proactively complying with ADA standards? There are three common reasons why more municipalities are hesitating, even at the risk of financial penalty, to become ADA-compliant.

  1. 1. High Perceived Website Redesign Costs

One cause of hesitancy for some municipalities is the perceived cost of a website redesign to enable compliant content and functionality. However, when compared with the potential of penalty fines and legal costs, any cost savings associated with a delayed redesign can be null and void.

  1. 2. They Didn’t Choose a CMS Partner with Accessibility Expertise

To produce a municipal website that provides the kind of self-service functionality that today’s digitally-minded citizens expect, local governments should partner with a website provider that offers a product designed exclusively to meet the functionality and administrative maintenance needs of local government. They should also choose a local government website provider with proven expertise in digital ADA compliance. The first step toward compliance is to design a website that follows accessibility best practices. The second step is to maintain compliance as content updates, which leads to the third common reason for non-compliance.

3. Limited Resources

At a time when local governments are more budget and resource strapped than ever before, some administrations believe they lack the staffing needed to both implement accessible content and keep future digital updates compliant. What many fail to realize, however, is that modern and affordable accessibility remediation software exists to help content management teams maintain compliant content through the use of such functionality as automatic alt tagging and integrated tools that allow individual users to make page appearance adjustments to address their individual accessibility needs.

The best way to avoid the risk of penalty fines and legal costs is to proactively comply with ADA requirements. Not to mention, local governments committed to enabling civic participation and building relationships with informed voters, should want to enable all citizens to easily consume online information and resources and utilize digital self-service tools. Humboldt County, California is a community committed to ensuring accessibility, and that has successfully leveraged its CivicEngage website and integrated AudioEye remediation solution to elevate its website’s accessibility.

“IT has several internal goals,” said Jim Storm, IT Division Director for the Humboldt County Information Technology Division. “Strive to keep current with technology, ensure reliable systems, and provide excellent customer service. With CivicPlus our website is optimized for efficiency, and we have a collocated geographically diverse data center and 24-7-365 support. We also wanted to be a leader among California Counties in web accessibility. When CivicPlus presented the opportunity to be one of its first clients to work with AudioEye, we tested its accessibility tools and features and realized AudioEye could help us get to the next level with its commitment to accessibility and digital inclusion.”

After a successful implementation of the AudioEye automated remediation solution, today the County continues to monitor and manage the accessibility of its content, relying on its AudioEye automated remediation solutions as the foundation for its compliance strategy.

“We plan to continue working with our web editors, our community, CivicPlus, and AudioEye to locate and remediate accessibility issues,” said Michael Tjoelker, Web Accessibility Coordinator and Webmaster for the County of Humboldt. “We are also continuing automated accessibility checks, weekly reports on new issues that are found, and staying up-to-date with the newest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.”

>>Click here to learn more about Humboldt County’s approach to accessibility.

Conclusion

The proliferation of ADA non-compliance lawsuits targeting municipalities is exposing more local governments to financial risks, but it also underscores a need for accessibility compliance to help achieve responsible, equitable government. Local governments that have not begun the process of assessing their current compliance and learning WGAC 2.0 A and AA best practices should start now. To begin, obtain a free, third-party accessibility scan by clicking on the link below to see where you stand.

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