For millions of people across the disability community, accessing certain websites and mobile apps can be a frustrating nonstarter. In fact, a mere 3 percent of the web is accessible to people with disabilities today. Digital content not optimized for all users can prove challenging, and often impossible, for some to use.
Fortunately, digital accessibility is becoming an area of greater focus for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In a recent proposal, the DOJ announced that it is considering revising laws regarding public websites and mobile applications. Ultimately, new requirements would seek to enforce the improvement of digital content design for users of all abilities.
Millions of websites and mobile apps fail to meet minimal digital accessibility guidelines. This can mean that people with various disabilities face needless barriers in accessing certain types of online content.
Individuals with visual impairments, for example, may not be able to read small font sizes or distinguish certain colors of text. With online videos that do not offer closed captioning, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may find them unusable. People with mobility disabilities may rely on screen readers. They, too, can miss out on websites and mobile apps not optimized for assistive technology.
Website and app designs that fail to provide accessible digital content can create a host of unnecessary obstacles for some individuals. Completing a wide range of tasks online – from ordering a pizza to filing for disability benefits – remains problematic for many users. In essence, digital accessibility is an inclusive approach to designing online content. It ensures that online products and services are accessible to all users, regardless of their disability.
The Americans With Disabilities Act and the Internet
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, seeks to protect the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. It aims not only to prevent discrimination based on disability, but also to allow all citizens to participate fully in society. Yet the ADA, in its current form, does not outline required regulations regarding digital accessibility.
While there are extensive web content accessibility standards already in place, complying with them technically remains voluntary under federal law. Even amid the pandemic, the DOJ issued only guidelines about how agencies could make COVID vaccination information on their websites accessible.
The internet, of course, has evolved significantly over the past three-plus decades. Websites and mobile apps today allow people to obtain information instantly, or to request services within minutes. Ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to the same online information and services is crucial, says the DOJ.
A 'Historic Moment'
This is the DOJ's first proposed rule on making digital content accessible since the ADA passed, according to a news release.
Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general, called the proposed rule a “historic moment” for the Justice Department. It will, she said, help Americans with disabilities “access the critical information [they need] to lead safe, productive, and prosperous lives.”
The initiative will focus first on enhancing the usability of online programs and services that state and local government entities provide.