Is your practice website compliant with guidelines set down by the Americans with Disabilities Act? Depending on the website content, it may or may not have to be. But even if you have no legal obligation, don’t you want to be known as a good business partner in your community?
When thinking about non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s likely that images of narrow doorways or inaccessible public bathroom stalls come to mind. But that’s not where the list of potential violations end.
Specifically, websites have been interpreted to be “places of public accommodation” for purposes of the ADA, meaning that websites cannot discriminate against disabled individuals — even if the inaccessibility issue is completely unintended.
For example, a Florida federal judge recently handed down a trial verdict that Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that could not be used by a blind individual.
Closer to home, several dentists in Texas have been notified that their website is not in compliance with ADA guidelines because “the websites are not accessible to individuals with disabilities such as blindness or hearing impairment.
Private lawsuits and enforcement actions undertaken by the Department of Justice have highlighted that not all publicly available websites are ADA compliant because, among other things, they fail to incorporate screen reader technology.
UNDERSTAND THE CRITERIA
Before panic sets in, it’s important to understand that according to the law, not every website needs to be ADA compliant. According to Lewis Wiener, an attorney and partner with Eversheds Sutherland, there are important distinctions to understand.
“The standards are, is the website a place of public accommodation?” Wiener says. In other words, is the website a place where the public can go where they can access goods and services, versus a private or public website that is informational only. Wiener suspects that most practice websites will fall into the latter category.
“They are advertising on the website their availability,” he explains, “but they are not making available on their website goods and services.”
That includes parts of the websites that are password protected, where patients can login to access billing and other records. Those parts of the website are not places of public accommodation. However, the waters get a little murkier if a website offers the opportunity to schedule an appointment that could lead to the provision of goods and services.
“That’s where you start edging closer to that line,” Wiener says, noting that if a practice’s patients have access to online registration for appointments, the website might be viewed as a place of public accommodation. “Because it leads to the provision of goods and services by physicians.”
Vision impairment, however, is not the only disability practices should keep in mind. There are also considerations for individuals with a hearing impairment.
For example, if there is an audio component to a website, such as videos that may be available for consumers to view, then closed captioning becomes involved. Does your practice website have tutorials on proper brushing and flossing technique? If you want people who are deaf to be able to follow along and understand the audio portion, then the website should provide closed captioning.
And that, Wiener explains, is a different prism through which to view ADA compliance. Consider that the videos or any other information on your practice website is strictly that — informational in nature. There is still an important question to consider: Do you want to be accessible to all of the community?
“That’s less of an ADA issue and more of a customer service issue,” Wiener says. “The ADA might not require it, but what type of service provider do you want to be? Do you want to be a service provider who’s basically hostile to the interests of the disabled, the blind and the deaf? Or do you want to be a place that is accommodating to them because you recognize that’s part of the community, and part of your customer or patient base?”
In addition, it’s not sufficient to examine your customer base and surmise that you have no patients who have vision or hearing impairments. Ask yourself, why is that? Maybe it’s because they can’t access the information on your website, thus creating a barrier to entry by those populations.
So if you’re wondering whether or not your practice’s website is ADA compliant, Wiener says making that determination is no more complicated than a single word: Ask.
“Physicians, I suspect, are not designing their own website,” he says. “They’re going someplace to have it done. So, pick up the phone and ask them, is my website ADA compliant? Is my website accessible to individuals who use screen readers?”