Shortly after President Biden’s inauguration, Whitehouse.gov was fully redesigned with a number of improvements geared towards users with disabilities. The new site features an accessibility statement that cites conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA as the website’s long-term goal.
That was one of the administration’s first official actions — and given that history, it’s no surprise that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has stepped up ADA enforcement. The DOJ pursued numerous high-profile investigations related to web accessibility in 2021, issuing a clear warning to both public and private organizations: The ADA applies to websites, and compliance isn’t optional.
How does the Department of Justice enforce website accessibility?
The Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Civil Rights Division oversees all ADA enforcement, including complaints related to website and mobile app accessibility. The DOJ can launch independent investigations of complaints and order organizations — including private companies — to fix ADA violations.
Website accessibility complaints generally fall under Title II or Title III of the ADA:
- Title II prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against people with disabilities, regardless of whether those agencies receive federal funds.
- Title III applies to private businesses and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in “places of public accommodation.”
Under the ADA, people with disabilities also have the right to file federal lawsuits. That litigation can (and does) occur without the DOJ’s input. In 2020 alone, U.S. companies received an estimated 265,000 website accessibility demand letters related to alleged ADA violations according to a report published by Accessibility.com.
Related: U.S. Businesses Potentially Spent Billions on Legal Fees for Inaccessible Websites in 2020
Biden’s Web Accessibility Enforcement Compared with Previous Administrations
While the Justice Department has consistently stated that digital content (including websites and mobile apps) qualify as “places of public accommodation,” the number of federal ADA investigations varies significantly from one administration to the next.
The Donald Trump administration paused ADA rulemaking including pending efforts to develop technical standards for website Title II & Title III compliance. From 2016-2020, the DOJ didn’t open any new digital accessibility investigations — but the number of ADA-related lawsuits skyrocketed during those years.
The Biden administration is taking a different approach. Over the past year, the DOJ has opened a number of investigations, largely focused on alleged violations involving websites that provide access to COVID-19 resources. Notable recent cases include:
- In December 2021, the Justice Department reached a settlement agreement with supermarket chain Hy-Vee, Inc. for alleged Title III compliance violations on the company’s COVID vaccine portal. The agreement specifically requires the chain to conform with the WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
- Also in December 2021, the DOJ announced a settlement with Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) to resolve alleged Title II violations. The MTD agreed to conform its website and mobile application to WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
- In October 2021, the Justice Department announced agreements with New York State and local government agencies to implement accessibility improvements on COVID-19 vaccination websites.
In each of these investigations, the alleged violators agreed to take steps to ensure compliance to prevent a potential federal court case. However, it’s important to note that ADA violations can also carry civil penalties: Title III violations can carry a maximum penalty of $55,000 to $75,000, with higher penalties for repeated violations.
The Biden administration has embraced WCAG 2.1 as the standard for web accessibility
While the ADA applies to websites and mobile apps, it was written in 1990 — long before digital content became an essential part of everyday life. The ADA doesn’t include technical specifications for website owners, but the Department of Justice has regularly identified the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s WCAG as a reasonable standard.
The current Justice Department has reinforced that guidance. Each of the agreements listed above cites WCAG 2.1, the latest version of the W3C’s guidelines. That indicates that the Justice Department expects businesses to keep content up-to-date with W3C guidance — and if the Biden Administration ultimately issues technical specifications for digital accessibility, WCAG will likely provide the framework for compliance.
For businesses, it’s another good reason to take steps towards full ADA compliance by publishing an accessibility statement and auditing content for WCAG Level AA conformance. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help you get started. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation or get a free website accessibility scan.