Congress Did Not Pass ADA Amendment Clarifying Web Accessibility Standards

January 19, 2021

The Online Accessibility Act, introduced on October 2, 2020, did not pass during the 116th session of Congress. The bill had some bipartisan support, with proponents suggesting that legally-specified website and app accessibility guidelines would lead to greater accessibility and fewer predatory lawsuits. Opposition to the bill, which included many accessibility and disability rights advocates, was primarily around the belief that the bill would actually limit the rights of people with disabilities.

If the bill had passed, language would have been added to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to set the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the official standard. The version of WCAG that would have been codified wasn't clear, since the proposal mentioned WCAG 2.0 or "any subsequent update, revision, or replacement to the WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA standard published by the World Wide Web Consortium or successor organization." At the time the bill was introduced, there had been a subsequent standard in WCAG 2.1 for two years, and drafts of WCAG 2.2 were already being shared.

Apparent error in the bill's understanding or application of WCAG wasn't it's only issue, however. In her article Proposed Online Accessibility Act in US Congress is Bad for Digital Inclusion, disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold laid out multiple red flags, with sections explaining:

  • "The ADA already includes website and mobile applications,"
  • "The bill only address a fraction of ADA's coverage of technology,"
  • "The bill uses the wrong standard for compliance,"
  • "The bill sets up a costly a elaborate rule-making procedure with lots of delays,"
  • "The DOJ can already assess civil penalties — in much higher amounts than included in this bill,"
  • "The bill limits the rights of disabled people to enforce the ADA through private lawsuits,"
  • "The proposed law takes away rights to enforce other civil lawsuits."

The failed-for-now Online Accessibility Act is by no means the first time lawmakers have pushed for clarification and specification on the standards that businesses need to apply to their websites to be in compliance with the ADA. Laws like Section 508 and, in Canada, the AODA already point to WCAG.

Eventually specifying a technical standard under the ADA may make sense; however, given that there is already firmly-established precedent that the ADA is interpreted as applying to websites and apps and that those properties must be accessible, there isn't going to be any rush from accessibility advocates to push through a law that trades off legal clarification for the suppression of existing rights.

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