The Department of Justice Provides Guidance on Web Accessibility

On March 21, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued some long-awaited guidance regarding web accessibility for local and state government agencies and organizations that are open to the public. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates web accessibility as part of its requirement for equal access to goods, services, and information. However, without clear definitions, many organizations ignored the laws. 

The Need For DOJ Guidance – History

The ADA is clear that organizations must remove all barriers to achieve equality for people with disabilities. The DOJ provided clear guidelines for physical barriers prohibiting access to goods, services, and information. However, without web accessibility guidance from the DOJ, businesses claimed barriers were only structural. 

So, why was more clarification needed? Because many businesses and organizations chose to bypass accessibility since it was a grey area of the law. At least, this was the defense in hundreds of ADA-related lawsuits. But, with COVID shutting the doors to local and state agencies and businesses, the inequality for people with disabilities was more prevalent. 

Digital Accessibility Guidance – Why Now?

Perhaps it was the COVID pandemic, many lawsuits flooding the courts, or mounting DOJ complaints and settlements that finally lit a fire under the Department of Justice to weigh in and provide guidance on digital accessibility

Millions of Americans with disabilities learned the hard way just how many websites were inaccessible as they tried to navigate their way through COVID. Over the past two years, almost every bit of information, services, and resources has been through digital means only.  

The need for digital accessibility is apparent through the number of recent ADA lawsuits. In 2021 11,400 ADA cases were filed, a 4% increase from 2020. The shocking number is cases from 2021 reflects a 320% increase since 2013.  

Whatever the reason for the guidelines in ADA accessibility, one thing is for sure – the time to comply is now

The Importance of Accessible Web Content

The DOJ clarifies that inaccessible web content is a civil rights violation of people with disabilities. Citing the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, this guidance pertains to all state and local government agencies (Title II) and businesses open to the public (Title III).  

The DOJ recognizes that digital access is a part of daily living. Inaccessible web content is the same as blocking the entrance of a building for a person with a wheelchair. 

The DOJ explains some of the ways people with disabilities access web content. For example, people who are blind can use a screen reader that’s audible or on a refreshable braille display. People who are deaf require the use of captions. Some people rely on voice commands to navigate digital content. 

Barriers to Web Content Accessibility

In their web accessibility guidance, the DOJ identifies some of the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing content. 

Color – Poor color contrast and/or using color as the sole means of conveying information are barriers for some people. A person with color blindness or low vision can have difficulty reading information with certain color combinations. Likewise, they can also have trouble discerning colors. 

Descriptions – A lack of visual and auditory information explanation may also pose a barrier. Many people with blindness rely on alt text to convey the meaning of an image. Similarly, people with hearing disabilities often rely on captions to understand information in a video.

Forms- People with disabilities need correct labels on digital forms so screen readers can access the information in the right place. They also need to prompt the person were to fill in data with examples of what is required. A visual and auditory alert should tell the user when the information is incorrect. 

Navigation- Some people with disabilities cannot use a mouse and might require a keyboard or verbal command navigation. 

DOJ Relies on Existing Standards for Accessibility

The DOJ is not reinventing the wheel; they are looking at existing standards to determine ADA compliance. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are what most organizations use for web content standards. Under Section 508 and the 21st Century IDEA, federal regulations use WCAG 2.0 standards. 

The Department of Justice is clear that web accessibility is as much a priority as other areas of ADA accessibility. This includes effective communication and the removal of barriers because all areas of the ADA law are crucial to independence and equality for people with disabilities. 

Christine Sket

Christine Sket has always lived in a world reliant on accessibility efforts. Born to parents with blindness, Christine learned earlier than many about the need for civil rights laws and inclusion. She devotes her life to advocating for people with visual and cognitive disabilities. Christine is Braille Works’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) subject matter expert and shares her knowledge about laws, life experiences, and moving toward a more inclusive society.

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