IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

DOJ Mandates Accessibility on State, Local Gov Websites

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the U.S. Department of Justice’s rule on government content “... obligates state and local governments to ensure their online services are accessible.”

A person's hands, at a computer keyboard with attributes for the vision-impaired.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) new final rule on government content accessibility is likely to stimulate change, a leader of a science and tech policy think tank said Wednesday.

The DOJ on Monday outlined a final rule laying out the technical requirements to ensure content on government websites or mobile apps “is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” This includes text, images, sounds, videos, controls, animations and electronic documents.

The directive marks an update to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ground-breaking 1990 law that broadly applies to the design and construction of government and commercial buildings to ensure their accessibility. The DOJ first took the position that the ADA applied to website accessibility in 1996. Its new decree was well-received by Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute.

“The new rule obligates state and local governments to ensure their online services are accessible. Many government agencies already strive to meet this standard, for example due to a governor’s directive or city ordinance, but there is little to no enforcement if they fail to meet it,” Castro said via email. “The rule change means that DOJ can now bring action against state and local government agencies that fail to meet ADA requirements for online services.”

The upgrades to government websites and apps must be made within two years of the publication of the rule, for those jurisdictions serving 50,000 residents or more. Smaller jurisdictions have three years to comply. Certain content like archived documents or pre-existing social media posts is exempt from the requirement.

The move to raise the bar on accessibility to government websites is a trend that has both urgency and momentum, as government agencies increasingly place more content on the web and rely on web-based platforms to interact with the public, whether for accessing documents, paying utility bills or registering to vote.

The rule-making by the DOJ may help move governments and their online offerings toward a more coordinated compliance with the ADA, said Castro.

“DOJ has a history of enforcing ADA compliance for physical government services, such as ensuring accessible polling sites. It will now need to turn its attention to online services,” Castro explained. “Typically, enforcement actions kickstart compliance. I’d be looking to see what cases the DOJ brings in the next year or so, as that will set the standard for what agencies should expect to meet to avoid lawsuits for non-compliance.”

In a statement issued Tuesday, Castro had said: “As more and more government services move online, it is critical that state and local governments ensure their websites and mobile apps are fully accessible for people with disabilities.”

But, he added, “Unfortunately, many government services do not yet meet this standard. In previous testing, we found that two out of five state government websites were not accessible.”

The ITIF urged state and local governments to “act swiftly and without delay” to implement the changes outlined by the Justice Department.