On September 29, 2022, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and U.S. Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD-03) introduced legislation building off of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), specifically as it relates to website accessibility. The bill, titled The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act, would require that “entities currently covered by the ADA…maintain websites and software applications that are accessible for Americans with disabilities.”
So what does this Act mean for your company and your website?
The bill would make it “unlawful for the entities currently covered by the ADA to maintain inaccessible websites and applications that exclude or otherwise discriminate against people with disabilities.” In other words, if your website is inaccessible, contains barriers or discriminates against people with disabilities, or excludes them, that would be illegal under the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act.
The ADA was written thirty-two years ago before the Internet became what it is today, so there needed to be a clear standard for how it should be applied to websites. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites, but that hasn't always been the case. This bill clarifies that and provides more guidance.
Who supports it?
Outside of Congress, 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) “commend Sen. Duckworth and Rep. Sarbanes for their leadership and for introducing this legislation with the full support and collaboration of the disability community.”
Within Congress, this legislation is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ed Markey (D-MA). This impressive array of disability advocates, United States Senators, and United States Representatives means that this bill has vast support, not just within Congress but throughout the United States.
Specific named supporters of the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act other than the co-sponsors include Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, Tony Coelho, former Democratic Congressman from California and author of the ADA, and John L. Wodatch, disability rights attorney and principal architect of the ADA’s regulations.
Why does this bill exist?
Though courts have long claimed that the ADA includes the digital landscape, specific judges have ruled otherwise. The age of the ADA and the language within simply do not include wording carrying protections for people with disabilities over to the digital sphere. Per Politico, “protections for people with disabilities haven’t kept pace with the digital age, especially when it comes to ensuring online accessibility and ease of use for devices.”
Because of the patchy applications of the ADA to website accessibility and the long strings of lawsuits generated by accessibility failures of websites, this kind of legislation is long overdue. As the digital landscape rapidly changes, regulations are needed to protect the rights of people with disabilities as they traverse the world wide web.
Specific impacts to your website
Firstly, the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “issue regulations that help ensure Americans with disabilities have equal access to websites and applications as nondisabled people.” This sounds like a broad directive, but it has a specific meaning as it relates to business websites, especially under the ADA.
This bill does hold that it is the individual business's responsibility to ensure compliance with the Act and to guarantee accessibility on their website(s). However, the bill also invests in the technical assistance needed to help businesses have the tools and knowledge necessary to reach the point of accessibility and understand what it takes to remain there.
This bill, in simplistic terms, would guarantee that in two years from the time it is signed into law, both people with disabilities and people without disabilities can:
access the same information
have the same engagement and interactions
enjoy the same services
These standards would ensure that all websites remain accessible and would provide for periodic review to maintain compliance with the Act. While the Act is inspired by, affirms, and fits alongside the ADA, it is a separate bill aimed solely at website accessibility.
Because of the evolving digital landscape, it is time for new regulations protecting people with disabilities as they navigate the Internet. The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act serves to create and enforce these regulations. It will form a rubric on which to model what you should do with your website to remain accessible to all.