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DOJ Seeks Public Comment, Plans to Revise Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

  • DOJ Seeks Public Comment, Plans to Revise Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

    The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or an NPRM, and is seeking public comment in order to update and revise Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

    This announcement comes nearly a week after final updates to ICT (information and communications technology) regulatory language in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act were released.

    One of the major proposed changes will be a revision to Section 504’s language about auxiliary aids and services, which will be changed to align with general communications requirements found in Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    How Will this Change Impact Web Accessibility Regulation?

    Like Section 508, Section 504 was written when most of the technology we use today did not exist. For that reason, modern IT and web accessibility is not directly addressed in the current language.

    The DOJ intends to bring that language up to date, using wording from Title II as a basis. The NPRM states the following:

    The Department recognizes that since the Department’s section 504 federally assisted regulation was first issued in 1980, electronic and information technology has changed the way that recipients communicate with interested persons. Individuals with disabilities — like other members of the public — should be able to equally engage with a recipient’s services, programs, and activities using electronic and information technology. Opportunities for such engagement require that electronic and information technology be accessible to ensure that communication with individuals with disabilities is as effective as communication with others.

    This revision to Section 504 would effectively reinforce existing IT and web accessibility requirements in Section 508, which states:

    When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency […] shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology, individuals with disabilities […] to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access of [those] who are not individuals with disabilities.

    Closed captioning, for example, would be necessary on employee training videos or any other internal video content of an entity covered by the Rehabilitation Act.

    Who Is Affected?

    Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by both federal programs and activities, and any programs that receive federal assistance. Examples of these are airports, public schools, federal agencies and entities like the IRS, and most colleges and universities.

    What Else Does the DOJ Want to Change?

    Listed in the text of the NPRM are some select, major changes the DOJ plans to make to Section 504, including:

    • Aligning the definition of certain terminology, like disability, with that of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
    • Provisions to allow employers to use the “direct threat” defense, and setting forth an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations
    • Aligning construction and building accessibility standards with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design
    • Revisions to various compliance procedures like the complaint filing procedure

    The DOJ will take public comments on the NPRM until March 20, 2017. Comments can be made online at www.regulations.gov.

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