The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act

October 18, 2022 BY ABBY ALEPA
Updated: October 21, 2022

 


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On September 29, 2022, Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representative John P. Sarbanes introduced the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives in an effort to remove barriers to web content for people with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to live increasingly online lives and normalized the inclusion of emerging technologies. Despite this, much of the web remains inaccessible to people with disabilities and bars many individuals from reaching essential online resources concerning health, employment, education, and more.

Although we live in a world where inclusion is feasible, there continues to be confusion around what accessibility means and how businesses can implement it. This confusion is due, at least in part, to outdated accessibility laws that were enacted before much of today’s current technology existed. Because of this, there is a lack of clear guidance around what businesses should do in order to make their websites accessible.

Read on to learn more about the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act.

What is the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act?

If enacted, the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act would establish a clear, enforceable accessibility standard to help guide companies working towards digital inclusion.

Congressman Sarbanes explained the intention behind the bill:

“The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act will require federal agencies to provide clear regulations for reducing barriers to web accessibility and help businesses and state and local governments work toward compliance. Senator Duckworth and I are pleased to introduce this legislation with the input of disability advocates to take an important step to achieving equity and inclusion for all Americans.”

The bill’s definition of accessibility concerning a website or application is similar to the WCAG’s four principles of accessibility: websites and applications must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. They must enable individuals to access the same information as and have the same ease of use as individuals without disabilities.

Outcomes of the Bill

If the bill is enacted:

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would be required to establish and update standards for websites and applications.
  • Explicit standards for web accessibility would be determined within two years of the bill’s enactment.
  • Discrimination of any websites and applications operated by covered entities would be banned.
  • The Attorney General would be required to make information about existing enforcement actions available to the public.
  • The DOJ and the EEOC would report to Congress on complaints received and activities carried out under this legislation.
  • The Attorney General and EEOC would have the authority to investigate and bring civil actions regarding violations of the legislation; plaintiffs would be able to seek a range of monetary damages.
  • The DOJ and EEOC would be authorized to establish an advisory committee on accessible websites and applications.
  • The DOJ and EEOC would be authorized to establish a technical assistance center that provides resources for disabled individuals looking to navigate sites and applications.

In the words of Representative John P. Sarbanes, “Digital innovation is only as powerful as it is inclusive.”

 

To Whom does the Act Apply?

Establishments that will be subject to the specifications of the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act are employment entities, public entities, and public accommodation and testing entities.

  • An employment entity refers to an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee.
  • A public entity, as defined in section 201 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is any State or local government, any department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or States or local government, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, and any commuter authority.
  • A place of public accommodation, as defined in section 301 of the ADA, refers to a wide range of public business establishments like restaurants, movie theaters, laundromats, museums, golf courses, and more that use a website or application.
  • A testing entity means any person whose operations affect commerce, as defined in section 301 of the ADA, and that offers examinations or courses related to, applying, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes.

Covered entities under the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act must meet the website accessibility requirements. These websites must also be continually updated and developed as technology standards change. It is the responsibility of the DOJ and EEOC to determine necessary updates every three years and make them publicly known.


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Expanding the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most far-reaching piece of accessibility legislation in the U.S. However, since its enactment in 1990, there has been a lack of clarity around web accessibility regulations under the ADA.

Congress intended for the ADA to keep pace with rapidly changing technology. But while the DOJ has long held that the ADA covers websites and other technologies critical to accessing a business and its resources, accessibility regulations covering websites and applications have yet to be issued. The ADA also doesn’t address applications and software in “smart” devices, such as cars, refrigerators, tractors, phones, and thermostats.

Under the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act, private entities that offer goods and services through a website or application must be accessible, regardless of whether they have a brick-and-mortar location. This bill doesn’t amend the ADA but affirms its requirements. In the words of web developer and accessibility advocate Ben Myers, “This is a huge move, since [the bill would] tackle the biggest debate and source of confusion in current web accessibility litigation.

If this bill gets enacted, many accessibility barriers to online information and resources will be removed. While the proposed enactment would not be a complete fix, the introduction of this bill is an exciting step in the right direction. The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act will work hand-in-hand with the ADA to create equal access for a wide range of consumers nationwide.


If you would like to learn about the bill in more detail, read the full bill text.

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