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Long story short: Yes, your library can be sued over its website

Without a doubt, one of the most popular webinars I’ve presented nationwide has been one that introduces library staff to the concept of web accessibility. It’s something I deal with regularly in my job, and I’ve learned so much more as I’ve taken multiple classes on the topic over the past couple of years. And, there’s always so much more to learn! If nothing else, I’ve learned that the subject is absolutely massive and cannot be adequately conveyed in an hour. I’m still not building perfect websites, but I’m a heck of a lot closer than I was, even a couple of years ago.

When I teach webinars, one of the concerns that I touch on is the legality of having an accessible website (or not).  I cover it briefly, but I try very hard to make it very clear to the attendees that accessibility isn’t optional. It just isn’t.  It’s not a nice thing to have, or an afterthought to be considered, after the website is done. It’s required. By law. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to give you a very (!) brief summary.

What does web accessibility mean to me, Laura?

  1. Understand that web accessibility applies to everything digital, not just websites.  It includes essentially anything involving the internet or digital access. That means that your library’s iPhone/Android app, Playaway players, ebook readers and more also come under this umbrella.
  2. The Department of Justice says that the ADA applies to websites. That means that, if your website isn’t accessible, an organization (any organization) can be sued.
  3. Part of the problem is that the DoJ hasn’t said what constitutes “accessible.” In actual court cases, usually the WCAG standard is cited for purposes of compliance. However, understand that the DoJ itself does not provide any standards at all. It’s pretty much said “be accessible or else,” and that’s it. That means that much is still decided on a case-by-case basis…in court.
  4. Making a website really accessible after it’s built is really difficult, if not impossible. Significant changes in accessibility often require building on a completely different foundation. It’s might be described as trying to retrofit a house for a wheelchair, when there are lots of steps and skinny doorways. It’s not going to work well.
  5. Those overlay services that purport to make a site accessible with a click of a button? They’re often actually hated by people with disabilitiesAnd they won’t protect you legally, either.
  6. Automated testing is not the same as human testing. Also, a lot of automated testing can’t test for the quality of text, meaning that the words you’ve written may not be descriptive enough or appropriate for people with certain types of cognitive disabilities.
  7. Accessibility lawsuits are increasing. A lot.  Libraries are not immune just because people generally are friendly towards libraries.

What can you do? Start by learning, at least a little. You can watch my webinar to get a little taste of what’s involved, and some quick, concrete things you can implement right away. Think about rebuilding your library’s website with accessibility at the foundation. We all need to start putting access for everyone on the front burner.