Reprinted from California Libraries  A publication of the California Library Association Vol. 9, No. 4 April 1999, pp 8-9

Does Your Library's Web Page Violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

by Mary Minow, J.D., A.M.L.S.

"When blind people use the Internet and come across unfriendly sites, we aren't surfing, we are crawling ... Imagine hearing pages that say, 'Welcome to ... [image]' This is the home of ... [image].' 'Link, link, link.' It is like trying to use Netscape with your monitor off and your mouse unplugged. See how far you'll get."

- blind user [using a text reader to interpret the Internet](1)  

The Issue

As library patrons access your library through the Internet, new access issues arise. On the one hand, the Internet can make your library's resources more accessible to some patrons with disabilities, especially homebound patrons. On the other hand, ineffective web page design can shut some patrons out, particularly patrons with visual impairments. For example, without special coding, a text browser will only display the word "image" when it reads a graphic image. If the graphic is essential to navigating the site, the user can go nowhere fast.

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. Public libraries are covered under Title II and private libraries are covered under Title III. 42 U.S.C. Section 12101 et seq.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, and provides a private cause of action to patrons to enforce its provisions.

Section 12132 states that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity." Section 12131 (1) (A) and (B) defines a public entity as any state or local government, or any department or agency, special-purpose district, or other instrumentality of a state or states or local government.

A recent complaint was filed by a visually impaired public transit customer, claiming that the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission website violates the ADA as it is inaccessible to his screen reader, which translates text from the website.(2) A complaint against San Francisco alleged that city kiosks were inaccessible to people who are blind or deaf. The city and its vendor is now working to resolve the problem.(3)

In a policy ruling dated 9/9/96, 10 NDLR 240, the Department of Justice stated that state, local governments and the business sector must provide effective communication whenever they communicate through the Internet. The effective communication rule would apply to libraries using the Internet for communication regarding their programs and services.

Further, the Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, surveyed all California community colleges and libraries to address technology issues for people with disabilities. In their groundbreaking finding of January 1998, OCR directed that college systems ensure that their campus (and library) web pages be accessible. At the California Association for Seconday Education on Disability Conference in October 1998, the Chancellor passed out copies of the letters and his responses directing this effort.(4)

Toward a Solution: Universal Design Principles

When building a library out of bricks and mortar, to meet the accessibility guidelines dictated by law, it's best to use universal design principles. The guiding principle behind universal design is the assurance that a building is usable equably by all people. More often than not, well-thought out design not only opens a building to people with disabilities, but also makes its use more convenient for others as well. For example, ramps and elevators are used by patrons in wheelchairs, are also appreciated by others, such as parents with strollers.

Similarly, universal design principles in web page design can be useful to a variety of patrons. Patrons who wish to display images can choose to do so, while those with slow modems may choose not to display them, if alternative text is provided.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a private standard-setting body released a draft set of Unified Web Site Accessibility Guidelines. Of primary importance in the guidelines are the use of alternative tags to provide descriptions of images, concern for color contrasts, avoidance of tables, and a simple separation between hyperlinks to allow screen readers to understand them.

The City of San Jose, a national and international model for accessible web page design posts its accessibility guidelines. Its ten minimum requirements for web accessibility are summarized here:

  1. Provide an Access Instruction Page for Visitors (includes email hyperlink for visitors to communicate problems with web page accessibility)
  2. Provide support for text browsers or have an alternative text page displaying the same information.
  3. Provide a second version of any document in Portable Document Format (PDF). Use an accessible format such as ASCII or text HTML. Include the word "PDF" in the hyperlink description to any PDF document.
  4. Attach "ALT" tags to graphic images so that screen readers can identify the graphic.
  5. Provide a "D" hyperlink to a description of a photograph that contributes to the content of a page.
  6. Caption all audio and video clips by using "CC" hyperlinks.
  7. Provide descriptive words in any link text. Do not use words like "this" or "click" alone.
  8. Provide an alternative mechanism for online forms, such as a phone number or email address.
  9. Provide an Alternate Document Format Notice (To obtain this information in an accessible format, please call XXX voice or XXX TTY) if users are required to download software not accessible by a screen reader.
  10. Avoid the use of frames and tables which cannot be read intelligently by screen readers. If tables are used, post an Alternative Document Format Notice.(5)

Other Electronic Resources

A California library that provides access to electronic resources beyond the Internet must also ensure that it does not discriminate in providing access to individuals with disabilities. This includes not only physical access to terminals, but also an obligation to provide effective communication of the electronic resources therein.


Bobby, a web-based service that analyzes the accessibility of a web page

Leslie M. Campbell and Cynthia D. Waddell, "Electronic Curbcuts: How to Build an Accessible Web Site" available at

Cannon, Robert, "Does Your Web Page Violate the American Disabilities Act?" available at and at

City of San Jose World Wide Web Page Disability Access Design Standards

"Is Your Site ADA-Compliant? . . . or a Lawsuit-in-Waiting?" Internet Lawyer 11/98 available at

State of California. Accessible Web Design. Useful page of links to diagnostics and guidelines.

Waddell, Cynthia "Applying the ADA to the Internet: a Web Accessibility Standard." available at

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (Draft)

Lastly, be alerted that a major conference entitled "Understanding the Digital Economy" in May will feature Cynthia Waddell who has been commissioned to write a White Paper entitled, "The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities." The draft of the paper will be posted May 1 at



Getting Started: Two Ways to Check Your Library's Web Page Accessibility

First Way: Turn off images in your browser.

In Netscape, Edit/ Preferences/Advanced/ then uncheck the box that says "automatically load images." Note: If you have a dial-up connection, you will notice that pages load much faster.

See if you can read and navigate your web page without the images.

Second Way: Check Your Page by using the Bobby Website.

  1. Point your browser to
  2. Fill in the blank with your library's URL and press Submit
  3. Bobby analyzes your web page's accessibility based on the working draft of the W3C's WAI Page Author guidelines and provides you with feedback, including suggested fixes.

1. Cynthia Waddell, "Applying the ADA to the Internet: a Web Accessibility Standard." written and presented on June 17, 1998 at the American Bar Association national conference. Available at quoting NY Times Cybertimes, 12/1/96.

2. S. Connolly, "Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in Cyberspace," Cyberspace Lawyer, January 1999 p. 8.

3. "Web focal to blind man's complaint," USA Today Tech Report 01/26/99 available at

4. Interview with Cynthia Waddell, March 10, 1999.

5. City of San Jose Disability Access Standards Page available at


Copyright © 1999 Mary Minow

Permission to reprint for nonprofit use is granted. The column is not intended to replace legal advice.  For a particular fact situation, consult an attorney.

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