ACM U.S. Public Policy Council Submits Comments on Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Apps

By Renee Dopplick, ACM Director of Public Policy
October 3, 2016

The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Justice on anticipated accessibility regulations. These new regulations will apply to websites and mobile apps provided by state and local governments. The comments address the value of aligning state and local government requirements with federal government accessibility requirements, flexible regulatory approaches that support technical innovation, the role of international accessibility standards and guidelines, and approaches to foster compliance.

The Department of Justice will use the comments to inform the scope of its future rulemaking under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of this pre-rule stage, the Department also intends to conduct research to better understand the benefits and impacts of potential accessibility regulations for websites and mobile apps.

Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires state and local governments, businesses, and organizations to provide people with disabilities equal access to services, programs, and activities, subject to some limited exceptions. Adopted in 1990 in the era of the pre-web Internet, the ADA does not specifically address accessibility of websites. As the federal agency responsible for its enforcement, the Department of Justice has interpreted the requirements of the ADA as extending to websites and mobile apps and has brought enforcement actions for noncompliance on a case-by-case basis.

Meeting the Challenge of ADA Regulations for the Digital Age
Adoption of web accessibility regulations could help clarify how entities can meet their obligations of providing equal access. Current ADA regulations do not address accessibility of websites and mobile apps. The Department issued web accessibility guidance in 2003 and initiated a rulemaking process in 2010 specific to web accessibility. With this Supplemental Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM), the Department is exploring the scope of possible web accessibility regulations for state and local governments and whether to extend the scope to mobile apps. If future regulations do not address mobile apps, the Department likely would continue to consider the ADA as applicable to mobile apps, but states and local governments would need to rely on voluntary guidelines and best practices.

Realizing Accessibility of Government Information at All Levels
Both the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act require government entities to provide equal access to information made available to the public. The ADA governs state and local governments. Section 508 governs the federal government. The U.S. Access Board recently approved the final text of the proposed updated accessibility regulations for the federal government under Section 508 as part of its ICT Refresh. The Board has submitted the final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This is the last approval step before the final rule is published and made available to the public. If approved and published, the updated Section 508 regulations likely will help inform and shape the ADA regulations.

Fostering Accessibility across the Public and Private Sectors
The anticipated accessibility regulations pertaining to state and local governments under Title II of the ADA are seen as the precursor for future regulations for businesses and nonprofits providing online services to the public under Title III. When the rulemaking began in 2010, the Department combined both Title II and Title III in one rulemaking. The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council submitted comments in 2010 supportive of harmonizing accessibility guidelines and regulations across the public and private sectors. The Department has now divided the two rulemakings. The rulemaking timeline for the private sector is unclear but likely will push into 2018.

Harmonizing with International Accessibility Standards
The Department of Justice is considering adopting the leading international web accessibility standard, WCAG 2.0. The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council supports this approach and encourages the commonly accepted standard for assessing compliance, known as Level AA. Although it is difficult to know what the updated Section 508 regulations will require, the Access Board has been considering requiring WCAG 2.0 and Level AA compliance for federal agencies.

Improving Seamless Transitions with Mobile Apps
The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council urges the Department of Justice to consider recommending guidance for mobile apps issued by the W3C or other competent international authorities to ensure information is both accessible and usable for people with disabilities. The Department should consider and encourage architectural technical solutions that help facilitate seamless transitions between web interfaces and mobile apps.

Building Accessibility and Usability by Design
“Accessibility and usability are crucial to an inclusive digital world,” said Harry Hochheiser, the Chair of the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council’s Accessibility Committee, and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh. Accessibility and usability should be incorporated by design rather than retrofitted. Several resources can help governments and their contractors build accessible and usable websites and mobile apps by design, including W3C and Section508.gov.

Two key resources for computing professionals include:

• ACM Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing
SIGACCESS promotes the advancement of accessible and usable technologies to benefit, enable, and empower people with disabilities. Its International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, Assets, is the premier forum for innovative research on mainstream and specialized assistive technologies, accessible computing, and assistive applications of computer, network, and information technologies.

• ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction
SIGCHI brings together professionals in a range of computing fields to understand and advance the design, implementation, and use of interactive computer-based systems in the broadest sense, ranging from desktop computing to interactive TV devices to the most advanced virtual reality systems.

The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council is committed to working with U.S. policy leaders, the computing community, and others interested in accessible technologies to ensure a disability-inclusive policy agenda that expands access, promotes innovation, enables research and development, and continues efforts to fully implement the ADA and Section 508.

Read the full text of the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council’s comments to the U.S. Department of Justice. The comments were developed by the Accessibility Committee, chaired by Harry Hochheiser, with support from ACM Policy Analyst Cynthia Florentino.

About the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council

The ACM U.S. Public Policy Council is chartered as the focal point for ACM’s interaction with the U.S. government, the computing community, and the public in all matters of U.S. public policy related to computing and technology. Its membership reflects a diverse community of computing practitioners, scientists, educators, researchers, and other technology professionals from government, business, academia, and the nonprofit sector. The Council’s contributions to public policy draws from the deep scientific and technical expertise of the computing community. ACM U.S. Public Policy Council statements represent the views of the Council and do not necessarily represent the views of the Association.