What You Need to Know About the Proposed Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act
Key takeaways from the proposed legislation on website and software applications accessibility.
On September 29th, 2022, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Representative John Sarbanes introduced a bill for website and software applications accessibility legislation. The bill builds on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), addresses current gaps in enforcing digital accessibility, and offers the most comprehensive framework to date for ensuring equal access to digital content, services, and tools for people of disabilities.
What would the proposed legislation do?
The proposed Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act would:
- Require the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to issue regulations to provide standards for accessible websites and applications used by public and private entities.
- Clarify that, under Title III of the ADA, “places of public accommodations” include ALL of the following: businesses and organizations with physical-only locations, those with both physical and online locations, AND digital-only entities.
- Set up mechanisms for the DOJ and EEOC to enforce the law and regularly review and update standards in order to keep up with emerging technologies and ensure ongoing accessibility for people with disabilities.
- Hold technology vendors accountable for ensuring their products and services adhere to accessibility regulations set by the law. This would include digital platforms and agencies that host and support business websites.
- Create and fund an advisory committee that would conduct research and provide recommendations to the Attorney General and the EEOC on enforcing the law. The committee would consist of the disability community representatives, digital accessibility experts, technology providers, government agencies, and other entities selected by the Attorney General and heads of federal agencies, such as the Secretary of Education.
- Establish a private right of action for plaintiffs. This would include monetary damages, injunctive relief and, for plaintiffs other than the United States and EEOC, the right to recover attorney fees and costs.
What’s the significance of this bill?
As mentioned earlier, this is the most comprehensive legislation ever proposed on digital accessibility.
Legal Clarity for Businesses
Once enacted, it would provide a clear legal framework and require regulations adopting digital accessibility technical standards for businesses to follow, eliminating ambiguity and case-by-case interpretation of the law.
The ADA, which was enacted 32 years ago — before the internet and other technologies had become an indispensable part of our lives — doesn’t prescribe digital accessibility standards, leaving it up to the DOJ and the courts to interpret the law on a case-by-case basis. This has led to inconsistent rulings on whether Title III of the ADA applies to digital-only businesses, such as online stores and streaming services. Title III of the ADA requires “places of public accommodations” (shops, restaurants, and other types of businesses) to be accessible to people with disabilities.
While the DOJ has consistently held that the ADA applies to business websites, some courts ruled that Title III only applied to businesses that also had a physical location. The “Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act” would finally put this argument to rest.
Mechanisms to Keep Up with Technology Changes & User Needs
The bill also fulfills the promise of the ADA to “keep pace with rapidly changing technology” and makes sure that people with disabilities have the same access to technology and all its benefits as the rest of the society. The bill goes one step further and sets up mechanisms for regular input from the disability community, accessibility experts, and other stakeholders as well as periodic reviews to ensure that the law continues to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities as new technologies emerge and impact our daily lives and livelihoods.
In the press release announcing the bill, Tony Coelho, former Democratic Congressman from California, author of the ADA, and AudioEye Board Member, said, “This bill is as significant as the introduction of the ADA and shows the cooperation and support from the disability community. As President Bush said on the signing of the ADA—‘the walls of exclusion need to be taken down’—this is another step in that direction.”
The bill also creates space for accessibility experts to help develop and review technical standards and their implementation, providing businesses and other entities with technical assistance necessary for making websites and applications accessible.
Ongoing Commitment to Digital Accessibility
The lack of awareness and ambiguity between laws and technical standards are among the top challenges in digital accessibility today. The “Website and Software Applications Accessibility Act” would bring much-needed clarity and signal both government and public commitment to ensuring equal access to the internet and other technologies for people with different abilities.
By bringing together different stakeholders – the disability community, accessibility experts, businesses, and federal agencies – the bill provides a more robust framework for ensuring ongoing accessibility and a clear path for enforcing the law.
What’s the timeline?
The law will be in effect six months after the date of enactment, except that certain obligations applying to businesses will apply 12 months after enactment.
What should businesses do now?
For now, the DOJ continues to rely on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and many courts have found the ADA to be applicable to websites. Here’s a quick summary of the DOJ’s recent guidance on web accessibility.
For businesses that have implemented an accessibility solution that meets WCAG and Section 508 (where applicable) standards, no immediate action is necessary.
For everyone else, the best next steps are:
- Check your website’s accessibility against the WCAG. Start with a free accessibility checker.
- Research accessibility guidelines and available solutions. Here’s a buyer’s guide for digital agencies and platform providers.
- Start implementing digital accessibility best practices across web design, inclusive content creation, product development, business operations, and other areas to ensure equal access for your employees, customers, partners, etc., regardless of ability.
- Regularly monitor your website and other digital properties for accessibility, as every change, including new content and personalization features, can render your site inaccessible for people with disabilities. Learn more about AudioEye’s Active Monitoring and Issue Reporting.
- Stay informed on new laws and regulations both at the federal and state levels.
Ready to test your website for accessibility?