DOJ’s September 25 response did not do what the members asked, but it did provide some helpful guidance and invited Congress to take legislative action to address the exploding website accessibility litigation landscape. DOJ first said it was “evaluating whether promulgating specific web accessibility standards through regulations is necessary and appropriate to ensure compliance with the ADA.” (This is helpful – to at least know this issue has not fallen totally off DOJ’s radar.) It continued:
As we reported in June, 103 members of the House of Representatives from both parties asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”
Disabilities covered under the ADA can be physical (e.g., muscular dystrophy, dwarfism, etc.), sensory (e.g., blindness, deafness, deaf-blindness), or cognitive (e.g., Down Syndrome). In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act broadened the scope of how disability is legally defined: psychological, emotional, and physiological conditions are now included.
On the legal side, ambiguity in the law and the speed at which technology and dependence on the Internet has developed created an opportunity for litigation all over our nation. As these cases have moved through our system, the courts have been nearly split -- with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Circuits ruling that the ADA does apply to websites, while the 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have ruled that it does not. These latter rulings have all been based on the interpretation that the ADA is focused on physical location and requires a nexus test. Other circuit courts in the United States have yet to rule on the topic.
Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
In short, the ADA is meant to protect disabled individuals as they go about their daily lives. These regulations ensure that people with disabilities are not denied entry into the above places or denied services by a company due to their disability. It is important to note that these regulations are now applicable to services that are provided online or through other digital formats. For example, if a company accepts job applications online, then it must ensure that a person with a disability can also apply for the job online. In other words, it is illegal to have barriers on the website that would keep the disabled individual from successfully completing their application. Fortunately, the ADA guidelines help to remove barriers and ensure that the Internet remains a space that people of all backgrounds and disabilities can use.
Many government services and activities are also provided on websites because the public is able to participate in them at any time of day and without the assistance of government personnel. Many government websites offer a low cost, quick, and convenient way of filing tax returns, paying bills, renewing licenses, signing up for programs, applying for permits or funding, submitting job applications, and performing a wide variety of other activities.