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Accessible IT: How to comply with the ADA

Meredith Kreisa headshot
Meredith Kreisa|October 17, 2023
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) introduced legal protections for individuals with disabilities. Businesses that are open to the public must be accessible to those with disabilities, and all companies must provide reasonable accommodation for any employee with a disability who requests it. While many adjustments are easy and affordable, they can open a can of worms for the IT team. How do you ensure that users have the disability resources they need without giving in to baseless requests from nondisabled users?

We’ll break down the basics to help you navigate your role in ADA compliance.

This article does not constitute legal advice. Apart from having watched our fair share of Law & Order, we are in no way qualified to offer legal guidance. Consult your HR department and legal team for more information on the ins and outs of how to remain ADA compliant.

Why accessible IT matters 

Accessible technology benefits both individuals with disabilities and your business in general. It’s one of those few win-win scenarios that we’ve heard legends about.

For folks with disabilities, the benefits are pretty obvious. Studies show that holding a job can boost a disabled individual’s mental health. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is more than twice as high for workers with disabilities than it is for those without. Note that this statistic does not include individuals who are unable to work or who are not actively looking for a job.

Even when they find employment, disabled workers earn an estimated 37% less than nondisabled workers. Let’s not mince words: That sucks. But the right technology can help someone maintain gainful employment. 

And folks with disabilities aren’t the only ones who benefit from accessible IT and assistive technology in the workplace. With an estimated one billion disabled people in the world, your business’s ability to accommodate them can massively increase your base of potential employees and customers. 

IT and ADA compliance

Make no mistake: Meeting ADA accessibility requirements is a shared responsibility with duties divided across several departments. However, the IT team often plays a prominent role due to the frequent need for technology-related accessibility resources. The following areas may call for your information technology expertise. 

While many IT teams focus only on supporting internal users, keep in mind that ADA rules also apply for customers if your facility is commercial or offers public accommodation. In such a facility, Title III of the ADA regulates that public-facing technology, such as self-service kiosks, should be accessible for disabled customers.

Software accessibility

If you play a role in developing or selecting software, aim for accessibility. Optional keyboard navigation, screen reader compatibility, and adjustable text sizes are some common features that make software more flexible to meet different user needs. Keep in mind that these same considerations apply to mobile accessibility. 

As an IT professional, you may also need to distribute assistive software, such as screen readers, voice recognition software, and screen magnifiers.

Hardware accessibility 

If hardware isn’t accessible as-is, assistive devices can help users with disabilities operate a computer more easily, so keep that in mind when choosing hardware.

For individuals with mobility impairments, assistive hardware devices often act in place of traditional mouse or keyboard inputs. Options may include an alternative mouse or keyboard, a mouth stick, a head wand, or a sip-and-puff switch.

Blind people who are able to read braille also frequently find refreshable braille displays more efficient than screen readers. A refreshable braille display is likely to be even more indispensable for someone who is both visually and hearing impaired.

A computer monitor may also present an accessibility issue. Many individuals with epilepsy or migraines benefit from flicker-free monitors with high refresh rates. 

Web accessibility 

We’ve heard rumors that some sysadmins play a role in site design. We sincerely hope that’s just some sort of creepypasta thing and no one actually has that broad of duties. But we thought we’d mention web accessibility just in case.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most common digital accessibility standards, and all web designers should be familiar with them. WCAG breaks down methods for making web content more usable for individuals with a wide array of disabilities. However, many of the guidelines follow universal design principles and are general best practices that enhance user experience for everyone.

Even if you think your website is perfectly accessible, you should run an accessibility checker to pinpoint potential issues. Additionally, incorporating a digital accessibility statement on your website can lay out your goals and policies to show your commitment to equal access.

A lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza set an important precedent: The ADA may apply to digital content. In short, a screen reader user with a visual impairment sued over the inaccessibility of the Domino’s website and smartphone app. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA applies to websites, and the Supreme Court of the United States denied Domino’s Pizza’s petition to overrule that opinion. 
In other news, choosing to fight digital accessibility standards in court rather than just implementing them isn’t a cute look for any business.

Document accessibility 

Accessible documents should be screen-reader friendly and formatted with low-vision and color-blind readers in mind. While you hopefully won’t be in charge of most surface-level document formatting, you may be tasked with determining the best document creation tools, integrating existing tools with assistive technology, testing for accessibility, or converting documents into more accessible formats.

Many of the same accessible design principles that apply to websites also come into play with documents. You might share these quick tips with users who regularly create documents: 

  • Set the language 

  • Use headings and lists for clear organization 

  • Incorporate alternative text (alt text) for nontext content 

  • Use plain language 

  • Use clear, descriptive language for link text 

  • Maintain a high color contrast 

  • Use white space effectively

How to create a reasonable accommodation request process 

The last thing any sysadmin wants is to be in the driver’s seat for reasonable accommodation decisions. If your company has decided to just pass all requests on to you, we suggest redirecting the focus to establishing a fair and sustainable request process. Ideally, this process should allow you to focus on filling a need rather than being the final word on what is necessary.

Recognize the meaning of “reasonable accommodation”

The ADA dictates employers make reasonable accommodations for employees or applicants with disabilities unless those changes would create undue hardships. Basically, this rule is meant to remove unnecessary barriers. Keep in mind that reasonable accommodation is the minimum that’s legally required, but businesses are free to make more modifications to create a more equitable environment. 

That said, it is worth noting that seeing disabled users receiving reasonable accommodations may inspire nondisabled users to make requests. Legally, businesses don’t have to fulfill these requests, but drawing the line can be hard. That’s why we recommend removing yourself from the decision process.

Route requests through HR

While managers may try to take their employees’ requests directly to you, they should go through HR for the following reasons: 

  • Your HR team should have the necessary expertise in employment law to make informed decisions. 

  • HR professionals are trained to handle sensitive personal information. 

  • HR can document requests, track them, and maintain records to show legal compliance. 

  • HR can serve as a liaison to streamline the request process, decrease bias, ensure consistency, and mediate disagreements. 

By the time the request gets to your IT team, it should be vetted, documented, and whittled down to what the employee needs or what specific type of technology is called for. All you should have to do is select, procure, and deploy the necessary resources. 

Understand the types of requests you’ll receive 

When a user genuinely needs resources, your IT team won’t want to leave them waiting. But to maintain your reputation for incredible speed, you should understand what sorts of requests you might receive beforehand. Otherwise, you might be left scrambling to figure out what resources would do the trick.

We’ve broken down some general accessibility categories above. That said, common technology resources for ADA requests include various assistive technology, including screen readers, screen magnification software, voice recognition software, braille displays, alternative keyboards and mice, accessible document formats, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. However, disability-related needs vary, so be prepared for some unexpected requests.

Supporting ADA compliance takes time, which most sysadmins just don’t have enough of. To free up more IT resources and get assistive software to users who need it, sign up for a free trial of PDQ. For 14 glorious days, you can see how easy it can be to manage Windows devices and support your users.

Meredith Kreisa headshot
Meredith Kreisa

Meredith gets her kicks diving into the depths of IT lore and checking her internet speed incessantly. When she's not spending quality time behind a computer screen, she's probably curled up under a blanket, silently contemplating the efficacy of napping.

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