More and more, municipal websites are becoming a primary avenue for access to community resources and information. While most municipalities are familiar with the need to provide barrier free access to their buildings, parks and other community resources, many do not provide barrier free access to their website.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 generally require that local governments provide individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services or activities. One way to help meet this requirement is to ensure that local government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities. Persons with certain disabilities, such as impaired vision, can use adaptive technologies to access information on the Web, but only if the webpage they try to access is compatible with the technology they are using. While a municipality can meet its legal obligations to these individuals without making its website accessible by providing an alternative way for disabled citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line, such alternatives are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available on the city or townshipâs website. Thus, the most feasible way of providing equal access is through changes to the website to facilitate use by those with disabilities.
The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has published a Technical Assistance Document to assist municipalities in providing equal access through their websites. This report “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities” suggests the following voluntary action plan for local governments:
1. Establish a policy that your webpages will be accessible, and create a process for implementation.
2. Ensure that all new and modified webpages and content are accessible:
a. Check the html of all new webpages. Make sure that accessible elements are used, including alt tags, long descriptions, and captions as needed.
b. If images are used, including photos, graphics, scanned images, or image maps, make sure to include alt tags and/or long descriptions for each.
c. If you use online forms and tables, make those elements accessible.
d. When posting documents on the website, always provide them in html or text-based format (even if you are also providing them in another format, such as portable document format (.pdf)).
3. Develop a plan for making your existing web content more accessible. Describe your plan on an accessible webpage. Encourage input on improvements, including which pages should be given high priority for change. Let citizens know about the standards or guidelines that are being used. Consider making the more popular webpages a priority.
4. Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for webpage and content development are properly trained.
5. Provide a way for visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or e-mail address on your home page. Establish procedures to assure a quick response to users with disabilities, who are trying to obtain information or services in this way.
6. Periodically enlist disability groups to test your pages for ease of use; use this information to increase accessibility. These and other modifications can open the website to use by many people in the community who would otherwise be unable to use this community resource.
The Internet has dramatically changed the way citizens connect with their local government and access information about resources in their community. Indeed, for people in the community with certain disabilities, online access may be their primary connection to the world around them. Addressing accessibility issues with a webpage, therefore, can be as important as providing barrier-free access to a city or township hall, and proper attention should be given to this virtual doorway to the community’s representatives and resources. At the same time, an accessible webpage can make the municipality’s dissemination of information more efficient and cost effective. Thus, increasing accessibility through the city or township website can allow you to serve a greater number of people, while reducing the cost to do so.
If you would like a copy of the Department of Justice Technical Assistance Document discussed above or would like a referral to a web designer who can assist you in modifying your website to increase accessibility, please contact one of the lawyers in our firm’s Local Government Law Practice Group.