Citing a lack of clear guidance and an increase in accessibility lawsuits, 19 Attorneys General have petitioned United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions to formalize web accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA predates the modern web and the Attorneys General of 18 states and the District of Columbia are asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to catch up. Recognizing that a failure to document specific expectations at the federal level causes confusion and burden to consumers and businesses, the request is clear: that the “DOJ issue a proposed rule to provide exact standards for web accessibility, and provide any guidance in the interim.”
The ADA and Website Accessibility
At the heart of the issue is whether the ADA requires web accessibility and, if so, how that’s defined. The letter references many businesses attempting to adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA, suggesting the popular standards would be the expectation, but goes on to say, “these steps do not protect from lawsuits or demand letters.”
Even though the ADA doesn’t mention websites, it prohibits disability-based discrimination on the part of state and local governments, and places of public accommodation. The rise in accessibility lawsuits and plaintiff victories make it clear that even without updated federal regulations, websites are increasingly being considered under the protection of the ADA. But, this hasn’t been true in all cases, which the letter mentions to highlight the need for exact standards.
“A clear indicator of the lack of guidance under the ADA regarding web accessibility is the significant split among the courts over the proper standards for web accessibility, including whether websites should even be considered places of accommodation,” the Attorneys General write.
Timing of the request
The Attorneys General note that following the December 2017 DOJ withdrawal from its July 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking titled, “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations,” no new proposals have been put forth.
Specific industries are called out in the letter as targets of the lawsuits stemming from the uncertainty, namely credit unions, community banks, and retailers.
The request comes roughly a month after 103 members of Congress sent a letter of their own to Attorney General Sessions, in which they state, “the statutory authority for applying the ADA to websites is unclear.”
Is your site accessible?
While it isn’t apparent what action or inaction the DOJ will take in the near future, the need for an accessible digital presence is clear. A combination of automated testing and manual testing by an accessibility expert is the best way to identify how usable your website is for people with disabilities.
Keep in mind that building websites with accessibility in mind isn’t only smart for compliance ― it’s an opportunity to include a growing population in your digital world and to provide what you offer to as many people as possible.