The Department of Justice (DOJ) is set to propose new standards to ensure that websites and mobile applications run by state and local governments are accessible to people with disabilities.
The proposed rule, announced July 25 on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), includes integrating text descriptions of images for people using screen readers, providing captions on videos and enabling navigation through a keyboard instead of a mouse for those with limited use of their hands, the White House said in a statement.
"Our administration's new proposed web accessibility rule will improve online accessibility to state and local services for nearly 50 million people with vision, hearing, cognitive and manual dexterity disabilities," President Joe Biden said in an X (formerly Twitter) post. "One more step towards a more inclusive and accessible America."
The rule would impact public programs and services relating to employment, education, voting, health and transit schedules, among others. It is intended to:
- Ensure that students with disabilities can access course content for the courses they enroll in, including higher-level math and science.
- Improve voter registration websites so voters with disabilities can register independently.
- Help people with disabilities commute to work by giving them better access to bus and train information online.
In a press conference, associate attorney general Vanita Gupta said, "[I]t is now more important than ever to ensure that there are clear standards for what state and local programs must do to make their online programs, services and activities accessible to people with disabilities."
The rule also proposes a specific technical standard that state and local governments must follow to meet their existing obligations under Title II of the ADA for web and mobile app accessibility, Gupta noted.
A copy of the proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register. It will be open for public comment for 60 days.
White House Expands Focus on Web Accessibility
The announcement comes as the White House has ramped up efforts to support people with disabilities in recent years.
After a bill to establish web accessibility guidelines failed to pass in 2021, the DOJ released guidance on web accessibility in 2022 in which the agency stated that the ADA's requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on websites.
The Department of Commerce in June announced $42.5 billion in grants to states to ensure the availability of affordable, reliable high-speed internet across the U.S. People with disabilities often rely heavily on the internet to access basic services.
Also in June, the Federal Communications Commission voted to require videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams to incorporate captioning and display of sign language interpreters.
Claire Stanley, a public policy analyst at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), said her organization has been pleased with the White House's commitments to promote the rights of people with disabilities.
"With the ever-growing world of online activity, regulations on website accessibility are imperative to offer full access for users with disabilities," she said. "The use of websites is so engrained in our daily lives; we cannot wait any longer to make sure they are accessible for all users."
Stanley also credits the disability-rights community for "its relentless work in calling on both the administration and Congress to bring about regulations and/or new laws to alleviate the ongoing problem of inaccessible websites and applications."
[SHRM Online: How to Make Your Careers Website Usable for People with Disabilities]
What Private Employers Must Keep in Mind
J. Colin Knisely, an attorney at Duane Morris in Philadelphia, said that while the rule would impact state and local governments, a defined set of website accessibility standards should give private businesses more guidance on these issues.
"It seems very likely that private businesses will ultimately be subject to very similar, or possibly even identical, technical standards," he said.
Knisely implored organizations to make website accessibility a top priority. Given the rise in website accessibility lawsuits during COVID-19 pandemic, he explained, employers should "most certainly be aware of the issue."
Further, Knisely suggested that companies regularly audit their website for accessibility issues. They should address common issues including "blockers"—a barrier that can restrict access to areas of the website for people with disabilities. Employers can also add an accessibility policy to their website and provide contact information for help.
Organizations that lack confidence in their IT department or web developers in handling these issues should enlist a vendor that focuses exclusively on web accessibility and is not just "putting a Band-Aid on the issues," Knisely said.
"You can save yourself a lot of time and money by putting website accessibility at top of mind instead of ignoring it and hoping it doesn't become a problem," he added. "Because, at some point, it will become a problem."