Disability organizations call on DOJ to finalize online accessibility rules

An embarrassingly small percentage of the web is compliant with ADA guidelines.

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The American Council of the Blind, National Disability Rights Network, National Federation of the Blind and more than 170 other disability organizations signed a letter published today, calling for the Department of Justice to finalize rules for online accessibility. According to the letter, the rulemaking process began in 2010 "under Titles II and III of the ADA" but was withdrawn in 2017. Last year, US representative Ted Budd (R-NC) led the re-introduction of a bill proposing an Online Accessibility Act, which was initially introduced in October 2020.

In today's letter, addressed to assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke, the signees urged "the Department of Justice to maintain this rulemaking process as a priority and finalize a rule by the end of the current administration." It states that while the DoJ has held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes websites and other technologies critical to accessing a business' services, it has "failed to define when and how they should be accessible."

Director of advocacy and government affairs for the American Council of the Blind Clark Rachfal told Engadget that at the moment, the DoJ enforces accessibility online "on a case-by-case basis."

"This is equivalent to enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act for the physical build environment by going door-to-door along main street," he said. The signatories of this letter want the DOJ to create enforceable accessibility standards "to ensure equal access to telehealth, distance learning, remote work, and online commerce for all people with disabilities," he added.

Efforts to come up with these rules have ebbed and flowed. The letter noted that "In 2018, the Department reconfirmed its position that the ADA applies to the internet but never completed rulemakings that were begun in 2010 under Titles II and III of the ADA and withdrawn in 2017."

The result is an online world where people with disabilities struggle to get their needs met. According to WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), about 97 percent of the 1 million pages evaluated had WCAG 2 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) failures. These issues ranged from using low contrast text and missing form input labels to empty buttons and missing alt text for images.

Blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard. Blindness aid, visual impairment, independent life concept.
zlikovec via Getty Images

"The absence of digital accessibility regulations in the intervening time period has resulted in persistent exclusion of people with disabilities from digital spaces covered by the ADA," the letter notes. It also highlights issues like "persistent barriers in telehealth accessibility," particularly for deaf users. While there haven't been quantitative studies on intersectional disabilities and how they relate to online accessibility, the letter states "anecdotal reports suggest that the vast majority of DeafBlind people are completely unable to utilize telehealth as it currently exists."

An American Foundation for the Blind study that's cited in the letter found that almost 60 percent of educators surveyed in Fall 2020 reported "their blind and low vision students could not access one or more of the digital learning tools they were expected to use in class."

As the world increasingly lives and conducts business online, it's crucial that the digital world is accessible by design. The letter points out that "These findings are neither exhaustive of all website-related issues nor comprehensive of the entire disability community." There's a lot of work and research still to be done.

"The disability community is large and diverse, facing access issues that continue to grow and evolve with the ever-changing landscape of websites and applications." Having a set of rules in place will help enable clearer communication and implementation of the tools that will make websites (and apps) accessible to all.