The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act

There's been an exciting and potentially huge accessibility-related development in the US recently. On the 28th of September 2022, Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representative John Sarbanes introduced a digital accessibility bill called the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act to the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.

For the first time, the light has been shone on ‘Software Applications’ meaning the scope now clarifies that accessibility isn’t just a website thing. Apps and Enterprise products are also in scope.

 

In a rush? Here's a quick breakdown of the important bits: 

If passed, this act would:

  • Build and clarify the ADA by establishing new digital guidelines. 
  • These guidelines would employ to employers, businesses, public accommodations, Local and State Government and commercial software providers. 
  • They would likely be based on WCAG 2.1 Level AA, but depending on timescale, WCAG 2.2.
  • They would be updated every three years to keep up with technology.

The result would be that all websites and web applications used by and serving the groups mentioned would have to meet WCAG at Level AA or risk enforcement action. 

 

What the act aims to achieve

The act addresses some key issues with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was written in 1990 and lacked technical standards for websites, web applications and software. Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) has long held that ADA covers digital products, the lack of technical standards often creates confusion over a business's obligations.

The act seeks:

"To establish uniform accessibility standards for websites and applications of employers, employment agencies, labour organisations, joint labour-management committees, public entities, public accommodations, testing entities, and commercial providers, and for other purposes.

If passed, the act would build on the ADA by establishing new regulations for employers, state and local government, public accommodations (businesses, non-profits and other private entities), and commercial software providers.

 

Key points of the act

If passed, the act would:

  • Clarify that ‘Software Applications’ are also covered under the Act.
  • Build on the ADA by establishing new digital accessibility regulations for employers, state and local government, public accommodations (businesses, non-profits and other private entities) and commercial software providers.
  • Require updated regulations every three years, ensuring technical requirements are kept up to date with modern digital technology.
  • Require the Attorney General to fund a "technical assistance centre" which would provide information, resources and technical assistance regarding the design and development of accessible websites and applications in accordance with the act.

It's also important to note that these requirements would still need to be met, regardless of whether the entity has a physical location or is digital only removing any potential ADA "Nexus" debate.

What accessibility standards would be used?

The act itself does not include any actual accessibility standards; however, terminology used under the Accessible Definition matches the four principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust):

The term "accessible" or "accessibility", used with respect to a website or application, means a perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust website or application that enables individuals with disabilities to access the same information as, to engage in the same interactions as, to communicate and to be understood as effectively as, and to enjoy the same services as are offered to, other individuals with the same privacy, same independence, and same ease of use as, individuals without disabilities.

This terminology suggests that the new regulations would be based on the Level AA requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Depending on timescales, this may be the current 2.1 version or the soon-to-be-published 2.2 version. The US government's own digital accessibility and procurement standards, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, incorporates WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirements.

Who would be impacted by the act?

The act specifically mentions websites, web applications and software owned, operated and utilised by:

  • Employment Entities (employer, employment agency, labour organisation, or joint labour-management committee) - who can't discriminate against employees or applicants by using inaccessible websites or applications
  • Public Entities (State and local government - which are already subject to section 508) - who can't discriminate against individuals with disabilities or prevent them from accessing information or services by using inaccessible websites or applications
  • Public accommodations (a wide range of entities such as businesses, non-profits, hotels, restaurants, retail stores etc.) - who must not prevent equal access to goods and services by using inaccessible websites or applications
  • Testing entities (providers of licensing, certification or credentials) - who must not prevent equal access to goods and services by using inaccessible websites or applications

The act also covers commercial providers that develop, maintain or update websites and software applications for any of the above.

Commercial providers must not design, develop, construct, alter, modify, or add to a website or application in a manner that results in the website or application that is not accessible or otherwise provide a website or application to any of the above that is not accessible.

 

Timescales

If the act is passed and enacted, the following deadlines will be set:

  • Within 12 months: The Attorney General will issue a notice of proposed rule making for the accessibility regulations for public entities, public accommodations and commercial providers. The notice will include proposed standards for accessible websites and applications. Similarly, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will issue a notice of proposed rule making for accessibility regulations for employment entities.
  • Within 24 months: The Attorney General and The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will issue the final rulings and the actual regulations.

The progress of the bill can be tracked via congress.gov.

 

Summary 

The legislation is widely supported by many disability and civil rights organisations, and rightly so. In a time where the number of web accessibility-related lawsuits is rising, additional regulations with clearer technical coverage will only serve to benefit people with disabilities. By following up-to-date, well-defined accessibility standards, such as WCAG, employers, businesses, government agencies, and software providers can help remove barriers to information, goods and services, providing equal access to all.

 

Learn more

 

 

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