Americans with Disabilities Act, Internet Tools, and the DOJ Regulatory Process

There may not have been enough attention to recent language in explanation of ADA regulations updated by DOJ and effective, after prior notice, last March 15, relating to nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in State and local government services.  The Department made clear that regulation of Internet accessibility  with respect to the ADA is on the way.

The notice of final rule includes the following discussion of the Interent and access to services, in the Other Issues Section, under Public Comments on Other NPRM Issues, of the 2010 Guidance and Section-by-Section Analysis.

Web site accessibility. Many commenters expressed disappointment that the NPRM did not require title II entities to make their Web sites, through which they offer programs and services, accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those who are blind or have low vision. Commenters argued that the cost of making Web sites accessible, through Web site design, is minimal, yet critical to enabling individuals with disabilities to benefit from the entity’s programs and services. Internet Web sites, when accessible, provide individuals with disabilities great independence, and have become an essential tool for many Americans. Commenters recommended that the Department require covered entities, at a minimum, to meet the section 508 Standard for Electronic and Information Technology for Internet accessibility. Under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Federal agencies are required to make their Web sites accessible. 29 U.S.C. 794(d); 36 CFR 1194.

The Department agrees that the ability to access, on an equal basis, the programs and activities offered by public entities through Internet-based Web sites is of great importance to individuals with disabilities, particularly those who are blind or who have low vision. When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the Internet was unknown to most Americans. Today, the Internet plays a critical role in daily life for personal, civic, commercial, and business purposes. In a period of shrinking resources, public entities increasingly rely on the web as an efficient and comprehensive way to deliver services and to inform and communicate with their citizens and the general public. In light of the growing importance Web sites play in providing access to public services and to disseminating the information citizens need to participate fully in civic life, accessing the Web sites of public entities can play a significant role in fulfilling the goals of the ADA.

Although the language of the ADA does not explicitly mention the Internet, the Department has taken the position that title II covers Internet Web site access. Public entities that choose to provide services through web-based applications (e.g., renewing library books or driver’s licenses) or that communicate with their constituents or provide information through the Internet must ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to such services or information, unless doing so would result in an undue financial and administrative burden or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the programs, services, or activities being offered. The Department has issued guidance on the ADA as applied to the Web sites of public entities in a 2003 publication entitled, Accessibility of State and Local Government Web sites to People with Disabilities, (June 2003) available at http://www.ada.gov/websites2.htm. As the Department stated in that publication, an agency with an inaccessible Web site may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. However, such an alternative must provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, if job announcements and application forms are posted on an inaccessible Web site that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to individuals without disabilities, then the alternative accessible method must also be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Additional guidance is available in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), (May 5, 1999) available at http://www.w3.org/ TR/WAI–WEBCONTENT (last visited June 24, 2010) which are developed and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative, a subgroup of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C®).

The Department expects to engage in rulemaking relating to website accessibility under the ADA in the near future. The Department has enforced the ADA in the area of website accessibility on a case-by-case basis under existing rules consistent with the guidance noted above, and will continue to do so until the issue is addressed in a final regulation.

In the long term this is likely to have significant implications for access to justice innovations.  I hope that funders will be laying the groundwork for meeting future compliance requirements in their funding decisions, including making resources available to innovators to create the tools that will support the development of compliance solutions.  A TIG category? An SJI interest area?  More collaborations with other funders?

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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