How a Disability Rights Organization Is Working to Make the Web More Accessible

How much of your daily life relies on the Internet?

Probably more than you think. And that can create challenges for people with certain learning and thinking differences. Without features like text-to-speech, people with reading issues can struggle to use the web. Sites with a lot of “visual clutter” can be hard for people with attention issues or to navigate.

Organizations like Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) are working to change that. DRA is a nonprofit disability rights legal center. They aim to advance the civil rights of people with disabilities.

“We represent people with all types of disabilities, and we represent every aspect of life,” explains DRA’s director of litigation, Mary-Lee Smith.

The organization focuses on impact litigation. That means instead of helping one person at a time, they work on lawsuits that impact anywhere from 40 to 40,000 people.

Website accessibility is a major concern for DRA. Many sites are thinking ahead and adding accessibility features. On Understood, for example, you can have articles read aloud to you or increase text size using the Reading Assist function (located on the bottom-left of your browser), both in English and in Spanish. The contrast between text and background is clear, too.

But many sites don’t have this kind of accessibility. And the legal requirements aren’t clear. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that says you can’t discriminate against people with disabilities. It applies to almost all public places.

But ADA was passed in 1990, before the Internet was widely used. It doesn’t explicitly cover websites.

That’s a problem, says Smith. “Everything from shopping to education to entertainment is accessed through websites,” she points out.

The U.S. Department of Justice is working on rules to clarify the accessibility standards for websites under ADA. But the new rules won’t be in place until 2018.

Meanwhile, groups like DRA aren’t waiting. DRA has successfully settled large cases with companies like Target, Scribd and Netflix, as well as schools like UC Berkeley. Target, for example, agreed to make its website accessible for people who use assistive technology, like screen reader software programs. Netflix is doing the same for its website and mobile apps.

There’s still work to be done, and Smith says DRA will continue its efforts.

“The fundamental purpose of the ADA was to bring people with disabilities in and integrate them into society,” she says. “How could you possibly exclude them from the Internet—something that now permeates almost every aspect of life?”

Interested in assistive technology for your child? Find out where to find free audiobooks and digital text-to-speech books. Learn about software programs for reading issues. And search for apps in Tech Finder

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.