Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act introduced in House and Senate
Congress continues to address deficits in digital accessibility through proposed legislation. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in the Senate and Representative John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.) in the House of Representatives introduced this bill to Congress. This new bill is called The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act (S. 4998) and (H.R. 9021).
This bill was developed in cooperation with many disability rights organizations including The American Council of the Blind (ACB), the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) who all commend the introduction of the bill. It requires “the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set and enforce standards for websites and applications and to periodically update such standards.” (Full text here)
It also affirms, as the DoJ has in the past, that the ADA covers digital accessibility. The bill specifically mentions the most inconsistently interpreted aspect of the many lawsuits filed concerning digital accessibility: whether or not the ADA applies in cases where an organization has no physical nexus of operations. The new bill affirms that the ADA applies, physical nexus or not.
Why is this bill needed?
When the ADA was passed into law in 1990, the internet was in its infancy. Congress did not anticipate the degree to which the internet would become intrinsic to daily lives and business. The ADA did not specifically mention digital accessibility in all its emerging and developing forms.
The recent pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digital accessibility. It is part of equal access for everyone, as more and more people turned to the internet as a way to obtain goods and services.
Thousands of digital accessibility lawsuits are filed every year under the ADA. Plaintiffs claim they are denied access to information, goods, and service due to inaccessible websites and documents. The lawsuits are due in part to a lack of clear accessibility standards. Federal regulations address digital accessibility in general, but not the specifics of what that should look like. The rise in lawsuits in recent years has disrupted courts and business all over the country, in nearly every industry. Without clear digital accessibility regulations, many businesses are unsure what the ADA requires of them. Others are unsure if anything is required at all. Contributing to the confusion, there are conflicting decisions from various federal Circuit Courts and repeated appeals looking for clarification.
A bill clearly defining how the ADA covers digital accessibility with specific, enforceable regulations explaining what is required should eliminate most lawsuits and give potential plaintiffs a firm legal basis to obtain resolution.
What is this different than previously introduced bills?
The main difference between this and other recently introduced bills is how it was developed. Senator Duckworth and Representative Sarbanes received cooperation and support of numerous disability groups. This bill is the first of its kind to be supported by so many disability groups.
The bill also specifically eliminates the sometimes used legal “loophole” of “whether the entity has a physical location or is digital only.”
Additionally, it calls for enforcement without a convoluted and protracted resolution process.
“Once passed, this legislation requires the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to establish a clear and enforceable uniform national framework for website and software application accessibility, reaffirm that existing disability rights law covers websites and software applications, and ensure that accessibility standards keep pace with new and emerging technologies.”
What will happen if the bill is passed?
Once the bill is signed, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have two years to create regulations applying to digital accessibility. They will then be responsible for enforcing those regulations. A process for pursuing violations will also need to be established.
Further, the regulations will be updated every two years. Additionally, the DoJ and EEOC will be required to develop regulations for new and emerging technologies.
What does this mean for my organization?
When the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act is signed into law, it means organizations, whether federal, state, or private, will have clear regulations to follow regarding digital accessibility. It means there will be a firm process and regular updates to those regulations. It means an end to the uncertainty about what is required and what “accessible” means in the eyes of the law. Hopefully it will also mean substantial reduction in lawsuits, since there will be less need for court interpretation of the ADA.
“Digital innovation is only as powerful as it is inclusive”
Congressman Sarbanes stated, “Digital innovation is only as powerful as it is inclusive. As new and emerging technologies have been incorporated into our daily lives, digital inaccessibility has prevented Americans with disabilities from reaching a broad range of health, education, employment and other critical resources. To address this civil rights issue and remedy this long standing inequity, we need uniform, consistent standards that lay out what true digital accessibility is and provide adequate mechanisms to enforce it.”
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Tammy Albee | Content Marketer | Onix Tammy joined Onix after four years experience working at the National Federation of the Blind. She firmly maintains that accessibility is about reaching everyone, regardless of ability, and boosting your market share in the process. "Nobody should be barred from accessing information. It's what drives our modern society."