This Bill Would Make It Harder for People With Disabilities to Access the Internet | Opinion

Posted Dec 15, 2020
By Lydia Smeltz

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced work, school and social life online, the web has taken on heightened importance. However, many of the online platforms we now depend on to work, take online classes, buy groceries and communicate with loved ones are difficult or impossible to use for millions of Americans who have disabilities.

And even as these Americans a quarter of the U.S. population struggle to engage in online life, Congress is considering a bill that would make web accessibility, the ability to fully utilize and engage with all aspect of a website, worse.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that government, businesses and schools take reasonable steps to ensure public accommodations are accessible, but is vague and ill-defined when it comes to websites. A proposed bill — H.R. 8478, misleadingly called the “Online Accessibility Act” — threatens to further complicate the problem by shielding thousands of businesses from liability for failing to provide accessible online services.

The bill would represent a cynical step backward on web accessibility, which was greatly limited even before the pandemic. The World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards body for the Internet, has created widely respected accessibility standards. According to a recent study, 98% of websites failed to meet at least one of those standards.

The pandemic has exposed how widespread lack of web accessibility prevents people with disabilities from fully participating in work, school and social activities. Since March, I have worked as part of a research project with the Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, N.C., to connect patients with disabilities to community resources. I have observed that patients frequently reported barriers to connecting to their resources, which included inconsistent website information or being unable to locate phone numbers or physical location on a resource’s website. This inspired me to question if the websites were in fact designed with accessibility in mind and to look further into issues of web accessibility.

I soon learned the problems are widespread. As just one example, 46 percent of job seekers with disabilities found online career sites “difficult to impossible” to use due to accessibility issues. While many companies are trying to address those issues, they are moving slowly. The popular work chat tool Slack, for example, will not be compliant with accessibility standards until January 2021.

Whether such sites are subject to the ADA is a gray area. The law was passed in 1990 and predates most Internet applications. Courts have consistently ruled that privately managed websites can be considered “places of public accommodations” under the act. But with no clear definition of whether websites are public spaces and no clear accessibility standards the current law leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

On its surface, H.R. 8478 would appear to address this gap by amending the ADA to include consumer-facing websites and privately owned mobile applications. However, these platforms already are included under the ADA. Further, rather than expanding ADA protection, the bill would require new, time-consuming administrative procedures to file complaints against non-compliant private websites. Its true intent appears to be to make legal action against inaccessible websites and services more difficult, thus making it harder to hold businesses accountable.

To be sure, the ADA needs updating for an online world. Revising the law to specifically name websites as places of public accommodation would help. The law could also be amended to explicitly identify the Web Accessibility Initiative’s guidelines as the baseline for compliance, providing consistent, comprehensive standards that all websites must meet.

Another option would be to expand the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which mandates that public websites provide accessible “advanced communication services,” including electronic messaging, video conferencing, television and other content. Including private-sector websites in this law would reduce uncertainty about the ADA’s scope. Implementation of its standards would be straightforward, as many resources already exist to help websites reach compliance.

Either measure would help ensure wider access to digital content at a time when that access has never been more critical. It’s wrong to prohibit access to information that is vital to full participation in society. To do so in the middle of a pandemic, when such access may be a lifeline, is inconceivable.

Lydia Smeltz a Duke University senior from Harrisburg, Pa.,, recently helped develop a Durham COVID resource directory. She plans to matriculate to medical school in fall 2021.

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