It’s true: When it comes to efficient receivables management, consumer web portals are all the rage. While web-based interactions with consumers are second nature to most businesses, the ARM industry has been slow to adapt. That’s changing, as many outsourcers have begun to embrace newer tools to manage consumer communications and collect payments.
Consumer preferences are the reason for this shift. Web portals present the communication options consumers want and demand. They function as live associates, available 24/7 to take payments. They provide consumers with the means to pay; the documents they need; the reminders they want; and the voice they demand to express consent, ask questions or even register a complaint.
But with every new opportunity comes a cost. Websites trigger unique, complicated compliance requirements for businesses, nonprofits, Federal, state and local governments including third-party collection agencies and those who collect Federal, state or local government debt. One of the most confusing and misunderstood set of consumer web site requirements is driven by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here are the highlights you need to know:
The ADA in Brief
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, communication, and access to services, goods, and public accommodations.
The ADA was originally enacted in 1990 to ensure, among other things, persons with physical disabilities could access public places. This public access requirement is referred to as the public accommodations provision of the ADA and applies to any nonprofit group, governmental body, public service organization or private place of business that is open to the public for the sale or lease of goods or services.
When the ADA was enacted, the reference to public accommodation applied to public places that were not accessible to persons with physical disabilities. Doorways, aisles, stairs and walkways are some of the more obvious examples of impediments to the physically disabled originally contemplated by the public accommodation provision of the ADA.
Today, due to the proliferation of the use of websites by brick and mortar organizations that provide goods and services to the general public, the ADA is being used to ensure persons with physical disabilities can reasonably access the web presence of these organizations.
Risk and Liability
Failure to take the ADA seriously can expose you to consumer law suits as well as administrative actions by the Department of Justice. In 2006, private litigants and the DOJ began filing or threatening to file legal actions based on allegedly inaccessible websites (and eventually also including mobile applications) and the trend continues today.
The Third, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit courts apply the ADA only to websites that have a connection to goods and services available at a physical location, like a retail store. The First, Second, and Seventh Circuit courts apply the ADA more broadly to include all websites that offer direct sale of goods or services, even those that lack “some connection to physical space.” Click here for additional information.
Websites intended solely for B2B purposes likely pose less of a litigation risk than those websites that drive consumer services and interaction. As collection agencies increase their use of websites to interact with consumers, provide required documentation of the debt, arrange payment plans, process payments and receive complaints so too will the need to comply with ADA requirements increase.
Poorly-designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly-designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse to access the information and services provided.
Be aware, many people with disabilities use assistive technology that enables them to use computers. Some assistive technology involves separate computer programs or devices, including screen readers, text enlargement software, and computer programs that enable people to control the computer with their voice. Other assistive technology is built into computer operating systems. For example, basic accessibility features in computer operating systems enable some people with low vision to see computer displays by simply adjusting color schemes, contrast settings, and font sizes. Operating systems enable people with limited manual dexterity to move the mouse pointer using key strokes instead of a standard mouse.
Rules to Follow
There are no current laws or regulations defining what is required to bring a website into compliance with the ADA. There are voluntary guidelines developed by W3C, an international consortium that develops web standards. The most recent version is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. I personally find the information provided at www.ada.gov to be the most helpful.
Proposed rules have been in the works for over seven years by the Department of Justice but have been delayed several times. See www.ada.gov for more information about the proposed rules for ADA website compliance and guidance on ADA requirements.
How do you take these issues into account with your own business? Addressing ADA compliance solutions for consumer websites means following a consumer website checklist to support your compliance with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Regulation E, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act and state licensing requirements.