Federal agencies and the private sector are coming under pressure as the Justice Department’s recent overhaul of its ADA.gov website to make it more user-friendly online.
The DOJ said it would make the site more “user-centric” by incorporating easier-to-understand language, among other improvements. The website itself provides information to employers and employees about the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace and public spaces.
The update marks the latest step by the federal government to increase its focus on complying with federal accessibility laws in the digital world, an issue that has gained renewed attention following the rise of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The widespread telework arrangement has led to some key deficiencies in the web and internet accessibility for people with disabilities, a “digital divide” for job vacancies, and other negative consequences.
“The real barrier isn’t just a wheelchair-accessible building, it’s software,” said Cat Noon Stark, CEO of accessibility software startup Stark.
The DOJ released it in March. Instruction In establishing the Biden administration’s position on accessibility, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to websites. He explained that he would interpret “places of public accommodation” to include websites.
The department has indicated in its spring 2022 consolidated agenda that it plans to issue a rule on web accessibility that directly addresses the digital presence of state and local governments under Title II of the ADA.
The new ADA.gov website is designed to be easy to scan and navigate using screen-readers or other accessibility devices. It has also been updated to include clearer language, not just for companies that want to learn about compliance.
Publicly accessible government websites do not meet the accessibility mark. According to the 2021 report Non-profit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The report found that 30% of homepages fail the automatic accessibility test, and 48% fail on at least one of their three most popular pages. The websites of agencies such as the National Weather Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development did not fare well on that test, which measures how well the websites are navigated by people who cannot see and hear content or use a keyboard and mouse.
“Government should practice what it preaches,” no one said about accessibility issues.
In addition to the ADA’s accessibility requirements, the DOJ also enforces Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires the federal government to purchase accessible technology throughout its branches and agencies. Another provision, Section 504, requires federal agencies and contractors to certify that their programs and services are accessible to persons with disabilities.
Members of Congress have stepped in to highlight the issue, including making the Department of Veterans Affairs’ web resources more accessible and accessing accessibility compliance data from agencies. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) The Senate committee held a hearing On accessibility issues in July.
“In a world that is still increasingly digital, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a long-term shift to delivering government services through virtual front doors rather than physical ones,” Casey said in a statement at the hearing. Over the years, the government has not prioritized making those front doors accessible to everyone, especially the disabled.
In response to a request from Casey’s office, the DOJ said it will continue to audit how federal agencies are working toward digital accessibility mandates under Section 508. But it hasn’t worked since 2012.
Ken Nakata, principal at Converge Accessibility, a consulting firm that helps clients with web accessibility, said Section 504 was designed in part to push the private sector through federal contractors to create accessible products.
“If the federal government were to look at it while it was buying it, it would encourage companies to create more and more accessible products to win those contracts,” said Nakata, a former DOJ attorney.
The federal government has budgeted more than $58 billion for information technology in 2022 alone.
Federal contractors like Microsoft Corp., which collect billions in government contracts; Listed recently Improvements to make their products and services more user-friendly for people with disabilities.
‘place of public accommodation’
For private companies, compliance with accessibility standards is complicated by federal courts’ rulings on whether websites and other digital spaces are considered “places of public accommodation” under the ADA. Many circuit courts have not considered the question at all.
In the near future Martinez v. Gutsy LLCA US District Court judge for the Eastern District of New York has allowed a blind man who sued a probiotic drink seller to bring a claim under Title III of the ADA. Plaintiff Pedro Martinez sued Gutsi because the website’s interface made it impossible for a blind person to complete a transaction using screen-reading software.
“As more and more of the activities of daily life and many transactions begin to take place online, a reading of the statute that limits its effect on parties engaged in nexus commerce will render the statute meaningless.” Judge Nicholas G. Garoufis wrote Comment on November 29.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced Access to Websites and Software Applications Act In September, that led the DOJ and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to create enforceable standards for web accessibility in the private sector.
Beyond the broad guidance in the ADA, there are currently no specific federally-mandated technical accessibility standards for private companies’ websites and applications.
Companies looking to comply with accessibility standards aren’t sure which rules to follow, says Angela Matheny, a consultant at Reed Smith LLP.
DOJ’s general requirements for web content accessibility guidelines 2.1 AA; Version 2.0 AA, which is the standard the government will use when complying with Section 508, Matney said.
“The transparency from the DOJ will be appreciated by the business community and people with disabilities,” she said.
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