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What Agencies Should Know About the New Accessibility Rule

The federal Department of Justice’s final rule in April updated the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring accessibility for all government content. Here’s what that means for state and local entities.

A light source illuminates a room through an open door with floating cyan symbols representing code or tech.
Public- and private-sector experts have a few ideas for government on digital accessibility, following the federal Department of Justice’s (DOJ) April ruling updating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As government agencies increasingly focus on digital service delivery, ensuring those services are usable for all constituents should be a priority. Unfortunately, advocates have said, many governments are not meeting users’ accessibility needs.


The final rule sets specific requirements for ensuring state and local government agencies’ web content and mobile apps are usable for people with disabilities.

The DOJ’s stance has long been that under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, all state and local government services must be accessible, including web and mobile platforms, according to a source familiar with the rule who was not authorized to speak publicly. But this rule is the first official regulation specifying the technical requirements that must be met: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Version 2.1 Level AA.

Under this new rule, state and local governments must ensure all their web and mobile content meets its requirements within two or three years of its April 24 publication. Those that serve populations of 50,000 people or more must meet the requirements within two years; those with populations under that number must meet them in three years.

The DOJ has released two resources to support public entities in meeting the new requirements. First, a fact sheet summarizes the rule and its requirements in plain language. Second, a Small Entity Compliance Guide offers more guidance and tips for state and local governments on where to get started — such as by establishing policies on accessibility.

The DOJ also has an ADA Information Line through which it answers questions callers may have about the new rule.

Separate from the DOJ resources, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — the organization that published the technical standard within the final rule — offers resources on digital accessibility.


The DOJ rule applies to state and local government — and works in parallel to Section 508, a part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires accessibility from federal agencies. Together, these requirements aim to ensure digital accessibility across different levels of government.

But while Section 508 offers a compliance baseline for federal agencies, Kathy Eng, senior ICT accessibility specialist with the U.S. Access Board — a federal agency devoted to accessibility — said nothing is stopping government entities from adopting more stringent standards, such as WCAG 2.2.

“For the most part, if you meet the standards, you’ve gone just far enough … but that doesn’t ensure usability,” Eng said, explaining that cognitive issues are better addressed in more recent WCAG updates. “If [agencies] want to go beyond the Section 508 requirements, we would encourage it.”

The Access Board works with W3C within the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group to develop best practices. Access Board staffers have decades of experience and will respond to questions from government agencies, Eng said. The Access Board also collaborates with the General Services Administration, which hosts the website; the Access Board contributes to this page and participates in assessing federal agency accessibility on an ongoing basis.

For agencies just starting their work to ensure digital accessibility, Eng recommends implementing training throughout an organization. Information and communication technologies encompass a broad array of information sharing for constituents, and all of that information needs to be accessible, she said. Her advice to governments is not to wait until the end of product design and development to assess accessibility, but to integrate it early in the process from design to deployment — and on the procurement side, too.

“You can’t leave accessibility to the end; you’ve got to get started on it right away,” she said. She emphasized that education of employees — including those in leadership — often needs to be the first step for an agency to succeed.

To one private-sector technology exec, the DOJ rule clarified what already existed, closing some of the gaps and removing some of the “wiggle room” that previously existed. But, he said, it also set deadlines.

“So, I think what it means now is people have to act,” said Dave O’Reilly, COO at CivicPlus, one of the nation's largest website builders for local governments. Agencies looking to make their services more accessible began by putting it online for accessibility anywhere, he said; the next task, he said, is ensuring it can be accessed by anyone.

This can happen in several ways, O’Reilly said. First, government agency leaders should educate themselves and others in their organization on what the standards mean. Second, governments should have an outside agency conduct a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template assessment to see what improvements are needed and create a plan to make them. He also underlined the urgency of getting the work underway, as a website redesign can be a lengthy process.

O'Reilly agreed that one work area that can be improved is increasing education for public-sector staffers on the regulatory requirements around creating and maintaining accessible websites.

Fines and disciplinary actions may encourage government to start improving digital accessibility, but a fear-based approach is not necessarily the most effective, O’Reilly said. Rather than focus on what might happen if an organization does not improve its digital accessibility, organizations should get educated on why it is the right thing to do. As he put it, it’s “the intersection between law and what’s right.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.