President Biden's Infrastructure Plan: What's in it for Accessibility?

Published October 19, 2021

Despite the word "accessibility" only being used 5 times in relation to digital accessibility (in contrast, the word "bicycle" is used 57 times and "wildlife" is used 100 times), the highly debated infrastructure plan (H. R. 3684) contains some meaningful accessibility-related legislation, primarily in the text of the Digital Equity Act of 2021and grant funding allocations for transportation-related initiatives. We review what's in the bill for accessibility. 

Online accessibility

Digital Equity Act of 2021

According to the Digital Equity Act of 2021, included within H. R. 3684, "digital equity" is defined as "the condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States."

The Act requires that a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program be established in the Department of Commerce, to promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by States relating to the adoption of broadband by residents of those states (more on broadband below).

The Act defines digital inclusion as (i) reliable broadband internet service, (ii) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user, and (iii) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration, and includes obtaining access to training to digital literacy, quality technical support, and obtaining basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity. 

Defining digital inclusion seems like it may have been a great place for accessibility expectations, but we'll get to more on this potentially missed opportunity in a moment. 

Access to broadband

Although the act does not specifically reference online accessibility requirements or even technical expectations for achieving equitable access, the broadband provision within the text is significant. According to Statistica, less than 60% of persons with disabilities have readily available and affordable access to at-home broadband internet service. 

Lack of broadband access most impacts those who require internet access to overcome the typical barriers to independent living, such as communication, employment, education, and healthcare. 

What's more, spotty and limited broadband access in general, in rural areas, has negative impacts on the ability of States and local governments, health care providers, and K-12 and higher education to effectively deliver services remotely. For example, in Colorado, where qualified interpreters are defined as RID Certified Interpreters by state law, this need is often met with the use of remote interpreting services due to the lack of eligible interpreters, but consumers in rural areas have limited coverage and often suffer as a result of these concurrent constraints. 

President Biden's plan calls for approximately 65 billion to 100 billion in funding to work towards closing the gap on broadband access. 

Accessibility of online content (in rail)

Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel (pun intended). 

Within 180 days of the enactment of the bill, the Chief Information Officer of the Federal Railroad Administration will be required to "conduct a review of the website of the Office of Safety Analysis of the Federal Railroad Administration; and [...] provide recommendations to the Secretary for improving the public’s usability and accessibility of the website [...]."

Upon review of the recommendations, and no later than one year after receiving them, the recommendations must be implemented to make the necessary modifications to improve the usability and accessibility of the website. 

More precedent, if nothing else. 

Document accessibility

One interesting outlier is the reference to the accessibility of digital documents. In at least one reference, in section 60306, titled "Policy Research, Data Collection, Analysis and Modeling, Evaluation, and Dissemination", the bill requires all reports produced to be "accessible to persons with disabilities and in languages other than English." 

Of course, more of this would be better. 

What else?

The ADA as a requirement and transportation funding

Thankfully, the Americans with Disabilities Act is still the law of the land and is represented consistently throughout the bill, usually as a reference to the requirements associated with installing charging stations or other infrastructure-related action items such as bicycle paths.

However, there do appear to be significant investments in the implementation of the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012 and the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2015.

In 2019, just over 5 billion dollars was apportioned annually to be distributed to local governments and transportation providers to implement accessibility and mobility requirements of both acts − H. R. 3684 would nearly triple that investment in the first year and increase annually by approximately 2.5% for a period of 5 years. This is without a doubt, a much-needed investment. 

There are also several noted allocations of grant funding to improve the accessibility of transportation vehicles and facilities used to serve transportation needs, such as railway stations and railcars. 

Conclusion

While it's encouraging that such significant investments are being proposed to improve access to what is a major barrier to independent living (transportation), it is a bit disappointing that the largest spending bill of our generation leaves much about online accessibility, and accessibility in general unanswered, given it was pitched as an investment in our "human infrastructure" as much as our physical infrastructure. 

It was also a bit surprising to see the Digital Equity Act of 2021 nested nicely within the bill without any attempt to resolve the ongoing accessibility debate in Congress − which will leave many asking the question: with less than 2% of the web considered to be accessible, how can digital equity be achieved without clear guidance for achieving it? 

Of course, the bill itself is massive at over 2700 pages, and we encourage all to review its contents for themselves. In the meantime, we intend to continue to assess its contents and will continue to post updates to this article as we identify accessibility-related provisions and revisions. Read more about the Digital Equity Act of 2021

Learn more

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