The Online Accessibility Act was introduced to Congress on October 2 in bipartisan fashion by Congressmen Lou Correa (D-CA) and Ted Budd (R-NC). The bill (PDF) would add language to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that specifically includes consumer-facing websites and apps, and would specify the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the official standards for private businesses' digital materials.
Clearer guidelines would result in greater accessibility and fewer predatory lawsuits, say the bill's proponents.
"A predictable regulatory environment is critical for small businesses. Unfortunately, when it comes to website compliance, these regulations aren’t clearly defined. This bill ensures that small businesses know what they need to do to be ADA compliant. It’s a simple, bipartisan, and common-sense solution that will put this problem behind us," said Representative Lou Correa in a press statement.
The compliance standards, as proposed in the bill, are WCAG 2.0 Levels A and AA success criteria, 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."
Broadly applying WCAG would align the compliance regulations for private businesses with existing standards, like Section 508, which already mandates WCAG compliance as a requirement for federal agencies and contractors.
It doesn't seem to be clear yet, however, exactly which version of WCAG is ultimately being proposed in this bill. While WCAG 2.0 — which reigned as the standard for years — is clearly mentioned, WCAG 2.1 has been around since June 2018 and WCAG 2.2 is being actively refined. Because the bill identifies updating standards with subsequent versions of WCAG 2.0, clarification to that end would help businesses understand their compliance requirements.
Online Accessibility Act is the proposed short name for the bill, which would actually add a new title to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As currently written, Title VI: Consumer Facing Websites and Mobile Applications Owned or Operated by a Private Entity would include Section 601: Requirements; Section 602: Administrative Remedies; Section 603: Private Right of Action; and Section 604: Definitions.
Consumer facing website has been defined as "any website that is purposefully made accessible to the public for commercial purposes."
It's uncertain what will come of the Online Accessibility Act, and when, as the presidential election season is in full-swing and larger questions of the future political landscape remain unanswered.
Even without such a law, which numerous politicians and groups have sought on and off for years, websites of private businesses have been widely interpreted as places of public accommodation, which requires their accessibility to individuals with disabilities under the ADA. The Department of Justice, although it has fallen short of clarifying the rules in the way the Online Accessibility Act is proposing, has reaffirmed on numerous occasions that the ADA does apply to websites.
Thousands of lawsuits, and many more complaints settled out of court, have been filed each of the last few years as individuals have found litigation to be an effective way of protecting their rights to equal access. In the meantime until a formal accessibility compliance standard is adopted, those lawsuits are unlikely to stop.
WCAG conformance remains the most accepted and predictable path to website accessibility. Predictability is of particular importance to many businesses and lawmakers.
As Representative Ted Budd put it: "Last year, over 2,000 website accessibility lawsuits were filed by plaintiffs alleging that certain websites were not ADA compliant. This bill solves the problem by providing guidance to businesses on how to bring their websites into compliance. If our bill is passed, job-creators will be able to avoid costly lawsuits and be given a roadmap for how to help their disabled customers access online content."
Businesses can review our Compliance Roadmap for help getting started.