How Does a Government Shutdown Affect Web Accessibility?

January 29, 2018

The January 2018 U.S. federal government shutdown lasted less than three days, but its impacts were felt by millions of people around the country and worldwide — including people who care about web accessibility. When funding runs out, many government agencies’ websites are inaccessible, out of date, or have limited functionality.

During the last shutdown in 2013, for example, the websites of the Federal Trade Commission, NASA, and the Library of Congress were taken offline. Other websites, like those belonging to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Federal Elections Commission, were updated irregularly, if at all.

These interruptions in service have an outsize impact on the 57 million Americans who are living with a disability. Many of these people, particularly those with visual disabilities, are dependent on using the internet to perform daily tasks that would be difficult or impossible to complete in person or over the phone. Not only does the shutdown disrupt lives, it also means that civil rights cases surrounding compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will be “curtailed or postponed.”

Thankfully, this year’s government shutdown was resolved fairly quickly. If it happens again, however, here’s what you need to know to prepare yourself.

The ADA and the Government Shutdown

In recent years, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of website accessibility complaints filed based on Title III of the ADA, which requires “places of public accommodation” such as businesses to comply with ADA standards. One of the few things that can bring these investigations to a halt, however, is a shutdown of the federal government.

During a government shutdown, all non-essential activity terminates, and employees not involved in essential activities are placed on furlough. In the vast majority of cases, this includes civil litigation in the federal courts, including ADA lawsuits.

There are a number of important ADA cases currently working their way through the federal government. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is working through roughly 175 cases against educational organizations across the country. Other cases have targeted colleges and universities in the New York City area, including Fordham and Hofstra Universities. During this year’s shutdown, all progress on these cases ground to a halt.

Final Thoughts

Although a government shutdowns tend to inhibit ADA lawsuits, in other respects, the shutdown is a mixed bag for people with disabilities. During the 16-day 2013 shutdown, Social Security payments, Medicaid services, and special education funding were mostly unaffected. However, government research into developmental disabilities had to stop for more than two weeks. 

If you’re concerned about the effects of a federal government shutdown for people with disabilities, we encourage you to get involved by reaching out to your representatives. In addition, you can speak with local government offices that might be able to mitigate some of the effects of a federal shutdown. Finally, you can always check out our website and blog for the latest information about web accessibility.

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