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Accessible Websites, One Small Law Firm, and the U.S. Department of Justice

lflegal logoCan a small law firm’s website help the United States Department of Justice in its web accessibility rulemaking process? When the website — LFLegal.com — has been designed to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Success Criteria AAA, I think the answer is yes.

In its July 26, 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) about web accessibility, the United States Department of Justice asks several questions about how web accessibility regulations might affect small businesses. The Law Office of Lainey Feingold is a small business – a one lawyer law office. The office’s website has been designed to meet all Success Criteria of the WCAG 2.0 (AAA Conformance).

This post provides information about the accessibility of LFLegal.com and current requirements for accessible websites, and is intended as a resource for individuals and organizations preparing comments in response to the DOJ ANPRM. Comments are due on January 24, 2011. Additional information relevant to the DOJ web accessibility ANPRM will be available on LFLegal.com in the coming months. Please use the form on the Contact Page of this website to sign up to receive email updates about the Department of Justice web accessibility ANPRM. Updates will also be available on Twitter by following @LFLegal.

Also, in the earlier post on LFLegal about large commercial websites with web accessibility policies you can find links to the full ANPRM and information on how to file comments.

Are you a small law firm or other small business with an accessible website? If yes, The Law Office of Lainey Feingold encourages you to write about it for the Department of Justice. Let me know and I’ll reference your site in a subsequent post. Don’t have an accessible website yet? After reading this post I hope you’ll start work on one right away.

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[You may also read a short Simplified Summary of this Post, a feature of LFLegal designed to satisfy AAA Success Criteria 3.1.5 of WCAG 2.0.]

Accessibility of LFLegal

This website launched in March, 2008, and was designed to be fully accessible to persons with disabilities. To ensure the most accessible site possible, and to serve as a model of how good design and accessibility can easily coexist, a criteria for the site’s developer was that the site meet all Success Criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 (AAA Conformance).

As a result of the site developer’s careful work, LFLegal was featured in the Implementation Report that was part of the process of finalizing WCAG 2.0. This site was one of two websites referenced in the report to reach WCAG 2.0 AAA Conformance. Read the post on this website about the Implementation Report.

The site has also been recognized by third parties for its accessibility. In late 2009 LFLegal received a “Quality Universal Award” from Accessites, a website dedicated to the marriage of accessible and visually pleasing design. Although I was disappointed that the judges concluded that LFLegal lacked a “wow” factor, they nonetheless found that LFLegal “could – and should – be used as an example of accessible design. Web design students… start taking notes.” Read Accessites Review of LFLegal.

In early 2010, LFLegal was featured, along with a website from Australia and another from Great Britain, on a WebAxe podcast highlighting successful accessible design. Read the post about the WebAxe podcast.

Here are some more resources on the accessibility of LFLegal

Websites Should Already be Accessible

In Question 18 of the ANPRM, the Department of Justice asks:

Should there be different compliance requirements or timetables for small entities that take into account the resources available to small entities or should the Department adopt an exemption for certain or all small entities from coverage of the rule, in whole or in part. — U.S. Department of Justice ANPRM on web accessibility

My experience as the owner of a small business with a relatively small website says the answer to these questions should be a resounding “no!”

The Americans with Disabilities Act already provides well-established defenses that recognize that all companies are not created equal. The “undue burden” defense has long acknowledged that a commercial entity’s resources may impact its ability to meet a wide range of accessibility requirements. Small and large entities alike have access to the “undue burden” defense when analyzing the cost of making their websites accessible.

A separate standard or, worse, a blanket exemption, for small business is also unnecessary — and unfair to the scores of small businesses who have already made their sites accessible. Since its passage in 1990, the ADA has prevented large and small commercial entities from denying people with disabilities access to services. Websites are central to the services offered by most commercial entities in the United States today and are themselves often a core service of such entities. While detailed regulations are necessary and helpful, current law already requires accessibility.

The ADA (and the Department of Justice) has also long recognized that the need to modify policies to ensure equal access, and the obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services that allow effective communication, are critical components of the ADA’s non-discrimination mandate. An entity, large or small, which has a website also has formal or informal policies governing the structure, content and services offered on the site. Policy modification to ensure equal access by persons with disabilities should be standard operating procedures under the ADA.

Compliance with WCAG ensures “effective communication” of web processes and content: a requirement of the ADA since its adoption twenty years ago.

Significant Resources Exist to Help Make Websites Accessible

In Question 6 of the DOJ web ANPRM, the Department asks “What resources and services are available to public accommodations and public entities to make their websites accessible?” LFLegal was designed by Mike Cherim, a small web developer based in New Hampshire. I located Mike through the Guild of Accessible Web Designers, a valuable resource for finding developers skilled in accessible design.

Significant resources exist to help businesses large and small build accessible websites. (A Google search of the phrase “How to Build an Accessible Website” returned over 3,400 hits when conducted in October of this year.) A good starting place is the website of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium, which contains significant amounts of information about how to make a web site accessible. Visit the WAI site.

Other organizations and individuals with expertise in accessible web design are listed on the Resources page of this website. Visit the web accessibility resource listing on this website.

Small Businesses Can Meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Based on my experience with this website, there is no reason that a small business should not be able to meet web site accessibility requirements. First, accessibility in no way impacts the ability of persons without disabilities to use the site. Indeed, I have received many compliments from such visitors who find it easy to locate information, navigate the site, and read content. Most sighted visitors to my site do not realize that they are complimenting accessibility features such as color contrast, text size control, skip links and headers. My experience with LFLegal has shown me that accessibility benefits everyone.

Cost of Access

In the ANPRM the Department of Justice states that it “encourages small entities to provide cost data on the potential economic impact of adopting a specific requirement for website accessibility and recommendations on less burdensome alternatives, with cost information.” The approximate cost of developing LFLegal in 2008, including posting significant content before launch date, was $5,000.00.

Built on a WordPress platform, the site is easy for me to update. With no formal html training, I post approximately 75% of the content myself, using an outside contractor, Bay Area web developer Louis Libert, to help with longer documents and graphics. The out-of-pocket costs (not counting my time) for maintaining the site (including hosting) have been significantly less than $1,000.00 per year for the past two years.

Maintaining the Site

How hard is it to maintain an accessible website? In March 2010 I wrote a post to celebrate my second year of having an accessible website. As I wrote then, patience and mindfulness are probably the two most important qualities to maintaining the accessibility of LFLegal. Read the second anniversary post about LFLegal.

I recognize that LFLegal is a relatively simple site — no shopping options, no video, no chat, feedback or other web 2.0 features. If I had those features, though, they too could be made accessible adhering to WCAG 2.0 guidelines. In answer to Questions 1 and 2 of the DOJ ANPRM, my experience — both maintaining my own site for the past two years, and working with large commercial entities for the past ten on theirs — teaches that DOJ should adopt WCAG AA when it issues web accessibility rules.

First, WCAG went through a rigorous adoption process during which all stake holders had ample time to contribute. It is a standard with the flexibility to grow as new web technologies grow.

Second, the guidelines are international – a benefit for all site operators: I know that even a small law firm has readers in other countries!

Third, while Section 508 is in a refresh process that will hopefully result in greater consistency between the two standards, Section 508 has been written as a federal government standard. WCAG, on the other hand, is a standard designed to work with all websites large and small, public or private, local, national or international. It has certainly worked for the Law Office of Lainey Feingold.


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