DOJ May Apply ADA Accessibility Guidelines to Websites

U.S. Department of Justice updates to the Americans With Disabilities Act could broaden guidelines on Website accessibility for the disabled.

As vendors such as Adobe look to make Websites and documents like PDFs accessible for people with disabilities, the tech industry and disabled users await more clarity on accessibility laws.

The Justice Department may update the 1990 American With Disabilities Act (ADA) to outline how state and local government Websites can make "services, programs or activities" accessible to people with disabilities, according to DOJ guidance at A notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) is scheduled for July 2013.

In December 2013, the DOJ may also address accessibility of public Websites. These laws could broaden the degree to which the ADA applies to online shopping Websites, according to Andrew Kirkpatrick, Adobe's group product manager for accessibility and newly named co-chair of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (WCAG), an organization that aims for international standards on accessibility for the disabled.

"The Department of Justice has indicated they will be releasing rules that will apply the Americans With Disabilities Act to the public commercial Web," Kirkpatrick told eWEEK.

The DOJ plans to "propose the scope of the obligation to provide accessibility when persons with disabilities attempt to access Websites of public accommodations, as well as propose the technical standards necessary to comply with the ADA," the DOJ agenda at stated.

Requiring online shopping sites to be accessible could bring benefits to the economy, according to the DOJ guidance.

"The Department believes that revising its title III rule to clarify the obligations of public accommodations to provide accessible Websites will significantly increase the opportunities of individuals with disabilities to access the variety of goods and services public accommodations offer on the Web, while increasing the number of customers that access the Websites to procure the goods and service offered by these public accommodations," the DOJ's document stated.

A ruling by the DOJ may require Websites to incorporate spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes that aid the blind and captions for the hearing impaired, Jared Smith, associate director of nonprofit WebAIM, told The Wall Street Journal. WebAIM provides training for people with disabilities.

In addition, standards governing federal government Website accessibility are listed under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The law applies to Web pages, applications and file attachments, according to the government's Section 508 page.

"For people that are blind, click here doesn't work," Terry Weaver, a consultant on IT accessibility, told eWEEK. When she was director of IT accessibility for the U.S. General Services Administration, Weaver had a leading role in implementing Section 508, which took effect in 2001.

Access Board, an agency created by the ADA, has been revising the Section 508 standards.

"There's a lot of work to do to make sure we're providing clear guidance to developers out there so they can address accessibility in the most straightforward, simple way while being effective because it's critical for people to be able to get access to this information," Kirkpatrick said.

"The industry—Web developers, the government, etc., are thinking beyond the current 508," said Kirkpatrick. "It's a good set of rules. There's very little within the current set of 508 rules that will be thrown out. WCAG will add a few things to that."

WCAG is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops protocols for the Web.

The WCAG 2.0 guidelines were developed in 2008.

Accessibility tools such as screen readers allow the visually impaired to read text. Popular screen-reading applications include Freedom Scientific's Jaws and Microsoft's Window-Eyes. Alt Text tags built in to HTML code for graphics also enable screen readers to describe graphics.

"As long as the author has provided alternative text, the end user can have that information read by the assistive technology," Kirkpatrick said.

Adobe has integrated accessibility features into its Reader software to enable the visually impaired to access content, and documents in Adobe Acrobat can be reflowed as one page to aid people with disabilities to read content in logical order, Kirkpatrick noted.

"When people don't know how to make PDFs accessible, they're basically a black hole for people with disabilities," said Terry Weaver, former U.S. General Services Administration director of IT accessibility and currently a consultant to companies in this area.

Drop-down boxes in documents such as tax or health insurance forms are particularly problematic for people with disabilities, Weaver said.

In addition, to drop-down boxes, developers of Web documents or PDFs need to avoid color-coded instructions, Weaver advised.

"Asking people to fill in the red items won't mean anything to them," Weaver said. "You have to have alternative means of identifying the fields."