Justice Department sets final rule on web and mobile app accessibility

By: Verbit Editorial

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The US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its final rules and guidance on digital accessibility, ensuring that all digital services are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that individuals with disabilities have equal access to web content and mobile apps.

The rule clarifies the obligations of state and local governments to make their websites and mobile apps “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” including via accessible text, images, sounds, videos, controls, animations and electronic documents. It closes longstanding gaps in the ADA, which, when enacted in 1990, set standards for physical sites but contained little direction for the accessibility of digital content. It also establishes specific requirements, including the adoption of technical standards, for making services, programs and activities offered by state and local governments accessible to the public.

DOJ standards rely on WCAG 2.1

The technical standards, the DOJ said, mimic those outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA, an internationally recognized accessibility standard for web access, to which the department has directed governments and businesses in the past in lieu of its own established guidelines.

“This final rule marks the Justice Department’s latest effort to ensure that no person is denied access to government services, programs, or activities because of a disability,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “By issuing clear and consistent accessibility standards for state and local governments’ digital content, this rule advances the ADA’s promise of equal participation in society for people with disabilities.”

The rule, the DOJ said, provides much-needed guidance for addressing a variety of barriers, such as helping individuals who are blind or with low vision access information about public transportation on a city’s mobile app or website, enabling people who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate in online university lectures or allowing individuals with manual disabilities to use a mouse to access online information about voter registrations.

“Ensuring that people with disabilities can access web content and mobile apps and fully participate in public programs and services will improve the day-to-day lives of individuals with disabilities in communities throughout the country,” the Justice Department said.

Advocacy groups welcome DOJ decision

The announcement was applauded by the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Disability Rights Network and the National Federation of the Blind.

“State and local governments use websites and mobile applications to deliver timely information and services across the full spectrum of their operations,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Given the widespread use of websites and mobile apps, this rule will improve access to public education, voting, benefits delivery, healthcare, employment training, public utilities, transit services, business licensing and so much more.

“This rule is the product of more than 14 years of advocacy and rulemaking to address these entities’ obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In light of the growing importance of accessing government programs and services online, we look forward to the significant positive impact this rule will have on the lives of millions of people with disabilities.”

Once the rules are published in the Federal Register, localities with populations of more than 50,000 will have two years to ensure that its websites and mobile apps meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA success criteria, while those with populations under 50,000 will have three years to comply.