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Understanding DOJ’s web accessibility guidance under the Americans with disabilities act

As I’m sure you know, the Department of Justice released guidance on web accessibility and the ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act on March 19, 2022. It describes how local and state governments and businesses can ensure that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities per the ADA.

Firstly, let me begin by saying that this is highly positive news. Most importantly, it’s a step in the right direction. Now, I also know that navigating the legalities of accessibility can be daunting. They are often ambiguous, leaving individuals and organizations to interpret their meaning.

Importance of Digital Accessibility

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digital. In fact, there is not much we do as a global society these days that doesn’t involve the digital realm—people with disabilities included. We all browse websites, videos, documents, emails, apps, and other online digital assets at the same frequency; people with disabilities simply may do it in slightly different ways.

For example, a user with vision impairment may use assistive technology tools—like a screen reader—to navigate the web. Additionally, a user with hearing loss may rely on video captioning to watch a video published on a website. Apart from the assistive technology, they are still accessing information.

Now consider what that experience is like when a website or app isn’t accessible. Those inaccessible assets and digital content make it extremely challenging, if not impossible, for people with disabilities to access information.

But there is a path forward.

Understanding and Interpreting Web and Digital Accessibility Requirements

The first question that almost everyone asks when it comes to anything related to digital accessibility is why is it so difficult? And rightfully so. For years, the legal aspects of accessibility have been no stranger to conflicting interpretations by various federal court districts. Unfortunately, these situations often send corporate entities to the sidelines. Here are some potential outcomes: feeling trapped due to no clear, indisputable standard, ignoring the rules, or deciding the rules don’t apply to their digital assets.

DOJ’s Guidance

The DOJ’s recent documentation addresses state and local governments (entities covered by ADA Title II) and businesses open to the public (entities covered by ADA Title III). However, the guidance also delves into a range of topics, including the importance of web accessibility, barriers that inaccessible websites create for people with disabilities when the ADA requires web content to be accessible, tips on making web content accessible, and other information and resources.

It’s also important to note that the DOJ’s guidance is not an amendment to the ADA; it simply uses the WCAG standard to tie digital infrastructure and assets to the ADA. You can read further on this topic here: Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA.

How Does the DOJ’s Guidance Help You?

Historically, due to the absence of any definitive and substantive guidance, many developers and web designers in the web accessibility landscape found it very difficult to find the correct interpretation of web accessibility requirements. But this guidance somewhat clarifies that ADA requirements apply to digital assets—so, in short, a starting point has been created.

Room for improvment in the DOJ’s guidance?

But like anything that has to do with the legal world, the guidance still has room for further clarification. Practitioners in the space have developed and worked on an evolving standard within the confines of WCAG. These standards have gone through upgrades and additions, leading to commonly referred standards such as WCAG 2.0 A, WCAG 2.0 AA, WCAG 2.0 AAA, WCAG 2.1, & WCAG 2.2. This guidance, however, does not specify conformance to a specific WCAG standard.

So, though the DOJ has taken a significant, positive step forward by removing much of the confusion about how ADA requirements should be applied to online resources, it doesn’t mean it’s crystal clear for everyone. Therefore, if you’re still unsure which accessibility requirements apply to your organization’s digital assets or resources, please know that you are not alone.

Achieving digital accessibility can be complicated, and it can quickly seem overwhelming and confusing due to various interpretations of existing accessibility requirements. But it’s okay; we’re here to help. We will happily work with you to navigate this new guidance and help you establish a simple yet comprehensive plan to meet and maintain digital accessibility goals.