The DOJ Civil Rights Division is currently reviewing comments about a possible rule regarding website accessibility for people with disabilities. The DOJ put an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register in July 2010, and it collected comments through January 2011. This is the second part of a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.
The Equal Rights Center is a nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia that advocates for civil rights and equal opportunity. The ERC submitted a comment about the notice, stating its support of a website-accessibility rule and the use of WCAG Level AA standards to create the rule.
Donald L. Kahl, executive director of the center, said issues like the ones raised with the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking are part of the core of the organization’s mission.
“It falls into our mission in a couple of ways,” Kahl said in a phone interview. “These regulations are a layer on top of the statutory law [from ADA] that has always required equal access for people with disabilities.”
Who Should Comply?
Kahl said that the question of who should comply with the regulations—web designers, software providers, or those who put up websites—has already been addressed by the ADA. The potential regulation would clarify how owners, operators, lessors, and lessees would have to comply.
Don’t Screen Readers Solve the Accessibility Issue?
Kahl said that screen readers are not a complete solution to the issue of website accessibility (for people with visual impairments).
“The problem with screen readers is they don’t tend to work with a lot of formats we take for granted [such as] PDF. So screen readers might help with some portions of websites, but they certainly don’t allow the fair and equal access that the ADA requires.”
Pros and Cons
Along with increasing market share, business owners could reap other benefits from complying with web-accessibility guidelines, Kahl said.
“I think there is the inherent benefit of doing what’s right for fellow Americans,” he said. “Benefits for business for being a good corporate citizen. Not just to the business community, but to the community as a whole.”
“That’s why so many companies work so hard to be good corporate citizens.”
Kahl doesn’t see any drawbacks to complying with such regulations.
He said that not complying with such regulations, however, would create a large “Do Not Enter” sign on the internet for people with disabilities.
“The very fundamental concept of our country is we are all equal before the law,” he said. “Not just whether we are black or white or Caucasian or Latino or gay, but whether you’re a person who has or doesn’t have a disability.”
“We are less as a society when we don’t include everyone in the common goods and services and access to common services that we all should have.”
Alternative Methods of Communication
Kahl doesn’t think that alternative methods of communication completely solve the problem of website accessibility. He said to keep in mind the context of the modern world.
“The internet has become not just a tool to do things, but a required tool to do so much,” he said.
He cited examples of online-only businesses, educational sites, and job-training opportunities.
“And business today, in many instances, is conducted over the internet,” he said.
“For business to say, ‘I don’t want to do this, I’ll force someone to come down or do it only over the telephone,’ creates vestiges of a separate but not really equal system” that the organization tries to fight, he said.
Web Developers Want to Know, White Says
Ashley White, communications and outreach manager for the ERC, sat in on the phone interview.
She said the ERC recently redesigned its website to be accessible.
She said that web developers are interested in knowing how to make websites more accessible to people with disabilities.
“[The] need and want is there on the developer side,” she said.
When asked about the cost to redesign the website, Kahn said he didn’t have the number on hand.
“Even for us, a nonprofit organization, we did not find that cost to be prohibitive,” he said.
It’s the Right Thing to Do
Kahl said there are more than 60 million Americans with disabilities, and “that group is going to increase at a significantly much faster rate than the rest of the population.”
“It is a huge market share for Title III businesses to tap into,” he said. Increasing accessibility to people “makes business sense, in addition to being the right thing to do.”