• Federal agencies, as well as the private sector, are facing pressure due to a growing focus on web accessibility by the Department of Justice, which recently sought to increase its own online user-friendliness with a makeover of its ADA.gov website.
  • DOJ said it would make the site more “user-centered” by incorporating easier to understand language, among other upgrades.
  • The website itself offers information to employers and employees on the rights of disabled people in the workplace and in public spaces.
  • The update marks the latest move from the federal government indicating that it plans to increase focus on compliance with federal accessibility laws in the digital world, an issue that’s gained new attention in the wake of the rise of remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Widespread telework arrangements revealed some key deficiencies in website and internet accessibility for workers with disabilities, a “digital divide” that has led to employment gaps and other negative outcomes.
  • “The real deterrent isn’t just a building without a wheelchair ramp anymore, it’s software,” said Cat Noone Stark, CEO of accessible software start-up Stark.
  • The DOJ in March issued guidance on accessibility, establishing the Biden administration’s stance that Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to websites. It clarified that it interprets “places of public accommodation” to include websites.
  • The department also indicated in its Unified Agenda for Spring 2022 that it plans to issue a rulemaking on web accessibility as it relates to Title II of the ADA, which pertains directly to state and local governments’ digital presences.
  • Government Standards
  • The new ADA.gov site was designed to make it easier to scan and navigate using a screen-reader or other accessibility tools.
  • Many public-facing government websites don’t meet the mark for accessibility, according to a 2021 report from nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
  • The report found that 30% of homepages did not pass an automated accessibility test, and 48% failed on at least one of their three most popular pages.
  • In addition to the ADA’s accessibility requirements, the DOJ also enforces Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires the federal government to procure accessible technology across its branches and agencies.
  • Another provision, Section 504, requires that federal agencies and contractors ensure that their programs and services are accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Members of Congress have stepped in to highlight the issue, including requests to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to make its web resources more accessible, and to obtain accessibility compliance data from agencies.
  • In response to an inquiry from Casey’s office, the DOJ said that it would resume audits of how federal agencies are performing on digital accessibility obligations under Section 508.
  • The section requires the DOJ to publish a biennial report on the federal government’s compliance with accessibility standards, but it has not done so since 2012.
  • Ken Nakata, a principal at Converge Accessibility, a consultancy that helps clients with web accessibility, said Section 504 was put in place in part to push the private sector, through federal contractors, to create accessible products.
  • The federal government budgeted over $58 billion for information technology in 2022 alone.
  • Federal contractors like Microsoft Corp., which collects billions in government contracts, have recently touted upgrades to make their products and services more user-friendly for people with disabilities.
  • Most recently, in Martinez v. Gutsy LLC, a judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York allowed a blind man suing a probiotic beverage vendor to bring claims under Title III of the ADA. The plaintiff, Pedro Martinez, sued Gutsy because he said the website’s interface made it nearly impossible to complete a transaction as a blind person.
  • Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act in September, which would direct the DOJ and US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to create an enforceable standard for web accessibility in the private sector.
  • Beyond the broad guidance found in the ADA, there are currently no specific federally-issued technical accessibility standards for private companies’ websites and applications.
  • Companies who want to comply with accessibility standards aren’t sure which rules to hold themselves to, according to Angela Matney, counsel at Reed Smith LLP.
  • The DOJ has indicated through enforcement actions that the standard they’re generally looking to is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.2 AA, which is the standard the government looks to when complying with Section 508, Matney said.

SOURCE: Bloomberg Law

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