• ISMA Global

People with Disabilities and Digital Technology: What You Need to Know

US / Australia update.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the gradual increase in the prevalence of online learning, working, and socialising that has eventuated in the digital age. Accordingly, concerns towards accessibility for disabled individuals to the internet have also grown. Accessibility involves consideration toward visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive and language disabilities in the design of websites and online platforms.

In Australia, the most recent statistics indicate that 1 in 5 people have a disability, 48% of which who are of a working age were employed in 2019. In comparison to the 79% of Australians without a disability that are employed, this figure creates a stark contrast. According to the NDIS Quarterly Report, out of the 4.4 million Australians that have a disability, 390 000 are supported by the National Disability Insurance Scheme. These figures precede the occurrence of COVID-19, the effect of which is yet to become entirely apparent to or addressed by businesses, the government, and the community.

The Disability Royal Commission has turned its attention to the way in which the government has failed to consider disabled Australians in its plan against COVID-19. In his opening address, the Chair of the Commission, Richard Sackville AO QC said "it was clear from the outset that people with disability were likely to be disproportionately affected".

Ms Gibbs, who works for People With Disabilities Australia and was a witness in the hearing, stated to the Commission that "reliance on the internet and the phone as the only ways to get information have been significantly a disadvantage [sic] to lots of communities of people with disability".

Thus, the inaccessibility of websites has adopted deeper ramifications for individuals with a disability, as the internet has become their primary, if not exclusive, source of education, support and communication.

The accessibility of websites has been legally disputed in Australia in the past. Claims against Coles in 2014 and the Commonwealth Bank in 2016 were both settled.

The notable case of Bruce Lindsay Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) took the SOCOG to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which interpreted section 5 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) to include the impact of website accessibility on disabled individuals. The Commissioner made declarations that the SOCOG amend their website because it treated those with a disability ‘less favourably’ and the SOCOG failed to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the website when requested by the applicant

Whether similar claims are to arise from the increased reliance on technology due to COVID-19 is uncertain, as businesses and the government seek to promote features that enable diverse access to the internet. However, in the US the number of claims against inaccessible websites and other business practices under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exceeded 10,000 in both 2018 and 2019.

In February of 2018, the House of Representatives passed the ADA Education and Reform Act, which worked towards regulating lawsuits made under Title III. It was stopped at the Senate, despite much demand from the members of the House of Representatives. The outdatedness of the legislation becomes evident within the multitude of issues that the courts may face in resolving such claims. There are currently no accessibility standards which websites of private businesses are required to meet, and those decided upon by the courts differs across the country.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WACG) are recommended guidelines under the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is a global creator of web standards. The WAGC is a technical standard for:

  • Content developers (page authors, site designers etc)

  • Web authoring tool developers

  • Web accessibility evaluation tool developers

  • Anyone who wants a standard for web and mobile accessibility

The WACG includes guidelines, success criteria and techniques to determine both perceivable and operative functionality of web and mobile software platforms. For a company that is serious about accessibility and being non-discriminatory, the WACG is a good place to start.

Australia is compliant to a Level A Standard of the WACG, which describes a multitude of requirements for text and visual content to be displayed through alternative features such as captions, audio descriptions, keyboard functions and navigable page layouts.

As regulative frameworks are being further developed and the accessibility of websites are becoming a more prevalent issue, it is recommended that companies review the means through which they interact with customers, clients, employees and others to ensure that no individuals are being disadvantaged or unfairly treated. Nonetheless, it is evident that such changes embody a lengthy process, and companies should focus on taking their own initiative to address this pressing issue.

By Emilija Batar

© ISMA - 2020

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