The DOJ Civil Rights Division is currently reviewing comments about a possible rule regarding website accessibility for people with disabilities. This is the second part of a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.
After the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking appeared in the Federal Register in July 2010, the department held a public-comment period that included town halls around the country. The comment period ended Jan. 24, 2011.
Lynn Esp, Assistant General Counsel for the Illinois Credit Union League, attended a hearing in Chicago, where she said the DOJ accepted information.
Full disclosure: The Small Business Authority does not have a partnership with ICUL. However, The Small Business Authority has a partnership with the Credit Union National Association. The Small Business Authority did not consult with CUNA for this article.
Esp and the ICUL don’t want the rule to apply to credit unions, and Esp submitted a letter saying so to the DOJ during the comment period.
Credit unions should be exempt from website-accessibility standards, according to the letter, because their services are targeted toward a “limited audience,” and those who need financial information from the website could also obtain it in person or over the phone.
Esp sees the potential standards as a financial and manpower burden on credit unions.
“I believe that the burden more properly is placed upon software providers, such as Microsoft Word or Windows, to implement the guidelines,” Esp said in a phone interview. “Credit unions, I don’t believe, have the power to do that, unless they contract with a third party.”
“I think the burden is improperly placed on financial institutions when it’s actually going to be the software providers are going to benefit,” she said. “It’s a software change and who’s going to benefit but the software providers?”
WCAG or Section 508?
The department’s first questions regarding the advanced notice were whether it should use WCAG level “AA” guidelines for its rule, and whether the department should use Section 508 guidelines instead of the WCAG.
WCAG refers to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which were created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG contain 12 criteria to make websites accessible to people with disabilities.
The Federal Register notice makes mention of three levels of conformity to the WCAG: “A” (minimum), “AA” (intermediate), and “AAA” (maximum).
“Section 508” refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 outlines the standards that federal agencies have to follow to make “electronic and information technology” accessible to people with disabilities, according to Section508.gov. The 508 standards are currently being revised, according to the Federal Register notice.
Esp said she doesn’t think the DOJ would exempt smaller credit unions from the rule.
If no credit unions are exempt from the proposed rule, Esp said that using Section 508 standards would be more appropriate than using WCAG.
It wasn’t that Esp recommended the 508 standards as much as it was her lack of confidence in the WCAG, she said. She doesn’t think the WCAG are cost-effective, and she doesn’t think credit unions can achieve compliance under the guidelines.
“The problem with WCAG is [it’s] too stringent. Section 508 allows for more freedom for credit unions,” she said.
Esp said she doesn’t think the DOJ will use the 508 standards.
“I think they’re going to go with the WCAG,” she said. “I think they view 508 as more of a legal standard, whereas WCAG is more operational.”
What Would Compliance Look Like?
Esp said she thinks compliance to the rule would be burdensome to credit unions.
“Most credit unions do not have internal IT staff, nor do they have the ability to make general software changes,” she said. “They lack revenue.”
“It’s really more of a programming issue and I think it’s going to back a lot of people into corners,” Esp said.
“The thing with this proposed rule is physically, access has not been denied. They have access. It’s just a question of the quality of access.”
Esp is not aware of any website-accessibility guidelines that credit unions may be subject to at the current time. She is also unaware of the percentage of credit-union customers who have visual impairments.
What Should Credit Unions Do in the Meantime?
There are some things credit unions can do while the DOJ is hashing out the potential rule.
“If they’re going to get a software upgrade, they should ask about the ability to make things accessible,” Esp said. “[They can] determine what kind of software capabilities they’ll need.”
“If they update their material, it opens up a new community of individuals who could be involved in membership,” she said. “It’s a win-win; it’s just, at what cost are you going to comply?”
Esp said that if the rule were to be proposed and passed, credit unions would have to “examine the cost it would take to update the website and budget accordingly, contract with third-party people who are familiar with these obligations, [and] determine whether they have the resources to allocate to website accessibility.”
If credit unions did not have the resources, she said, they would have to show how implementing website accessibility would create an undue burden.
Esp said she thinks the DOJ will probably pass a rule.