History of the Web and ADA
Since at least 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that web sites are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, despite years of consideration, there are not yet technical or implementation regulations that define where or how web content must be accessible in order to meet ADA requirements. This has left lawyers, complainants, and the Office of Civil Rights with the ability to file complaints or lawsuits based on any indication of inaccessibility – and they can then demand accessibility to any arbitrary level and on any timeline they choose.
I often compare this situation to being given a speeding ticket on a road that has no speed limit signs – the enforcer can determine if you’re going too fast, without a specific measurement of what that means. With that said, it’s increasingly difficult to claim that one doesn’t know web accessibility is important. Nevertheless, clear regulations are necessary to ensure progress and fairness.
In 2010, the Department of Justice issues an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to seek feedback on how to regulate web accessibility in regards to ADA for State and Local Governments (Title II) and private entities and public accommodations (Title III). Unfortunately, the Department has delayed formal progress on these regulations for several years.
2016 SANPRM and WebAIM’s Responses
In April of this year, the Department issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) to again seek insight and feedback on this important topic as related to Title II entities. The SANPRM posed 123 questions for public feedback on a wide variety of topics. Comments were due October 7th, 2016.
Below are several of the notable comments and recommendations WebAIM provided:
- WebAIM recommends the adoption of WCAG 2.0 A/AA as the standard to define web accessibility under the ADA. We also recommend such standards be considered for mobile applications and content.
- We do, however, recommend that descriptive transcripts be required for ADA compliance for multimedia, and that audio descriptions not be required for ADA compliance. This essentially swaps the 1.2.5 Level AA audio description success criterion requirements and the 1.2.8 Level AAA transcript success criterion requirement. This restructuring would result in more accessible multimedia content for more users, while decreasing the cost burden on media authors and providers. This would also harmonize ADA standards with Canadian standards and (likely) future updates to WCAG.
- We agree that a 2-year timeframe from the publication of the final rule is reasonable. We further recommend that entities that may have difficulties meeting this timeline may be granted an additional year if a formal transition plan is put into place which outlines goals and timelines for reaching full compliance by the end of the third year.
- While there is currently a short supply of web accessibility professionals and consultants (such as WebAIM), we do not believe that this should be a factor in extending implementation timelines. Demand will quickly produce skilled accessibility experts to better meet the demand within the 2-3 year timeframe.
- WebAIM does not support different technical standards for small and/or rural entities. Such entities very often have smaller and less complex sites, so thus lower accessibility burdens, though we realize that such requirements may hit small/rural entities harder. Users with disabilities should not be further marginalized because they live in rural or remote locations.
- WebAIM supports an exemption for truly archival web content so long as it is indicated as being such, and a mechanism is provided whereby users may request that the content be made accessible (or an accessible version be provided) and that such accessible content is provided in a reasonable timeframe.
- WebAIM does not support the Department of Justice’s suggestion that social media sites be excepted from regulation. Such an exception would impact services, programs, and activities that are often delivered or communicated via social media.
- It is our strong opinion that password-protected content of public educational institutions not be excepted. Much educational content is delivered via password-protected course and content management systems. Such an exception would promote moving other critical content and functions behind a password to avoid accessibility requirements, thus further marginalizing students with disabilities.
- One question suggested that the presence or attendance of individuals with disabilities may be used to trigger applicability of accessibility rules. Excluding educational entities from statutory compliance when they do not have these students, parents, or others with disabilities, will further exacerbate the problem, and functionally reduce choice and self-determination for the very population that is vulnerable.
- WebAIM supports the use of conforming alternate versions to meet ADA accessibility rules when these versions meet the WCAG 2.0 requirements for such alternatives.
Our primary recommendation to the Department of Justice is to make haste – delaying promulgation of clear ADA technical standards will further alienate individuals with disabilities from accessing critical web content and functionality.