The Internet has become such a commonplace, everyday part of our lives. We use the online world in many ways, to communicate, to learn, to gather information, to shop, to stay informed.
While the pervasiveness of the Internet may suggest its equally widespread availability, the opposite is often true. Disabled people may be unable to access online information, manipulate a keyboard, and navigate through a website.
Website Accessibility for Disabled Users
As the US Department of Justice explains:
“Many people with disabilities use ‘assistive technology’ to enable them to use computers and access the Internet. Blind people who cannot see computer monitors may use screen readers – devices that speak the text that would normally appear on a monitor. People who have difficulty using a computer mouse can use voice recognition software to control their computers with verbal commands.
People with other types of disabilities may use still other kinds of assistive technology. New and innovative assistive technologies are being introduced every day. Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some from entering. Designers may not realize how simple features built into a web page will assist someone who, for instance, cannot see a computer monitor or use a mouse.”
Recognizing this disparity, the legal issue of online accessibility for the disabled is now a hot topic in courtrooms across the United States and with federal agencies. Of course, the Internet as we know it today did not exist in 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the law. However, Congress, when passing the ADA, acknowledged that future technological advances unanticipated in 1990 would still have to be made accessible for disabled people to use.
Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA) Requirements
As Congress expressly stated when passing the ADA, “…the types of accommodation and services provided to individuals with disabilities, under all of the titles of this bill, should keep pace with the rapidly changing technology of the times[,]” and that technological advances “may require public accommodations to provide auxiliary aids and services in the future which today would not be required because they would be held to impose undue burdens on such entities.” (See: U.S. House of Representatives Report No. 485, pt. 2, at 108 (1990))
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ new Affordable Care Act Section 1557 health care civil rights regulations address the importance of Internet availability to everyone by requiring online materials to be accessible for disabled users. But this regulatory pronouncement is not the end of the accessibility effort.
Currently, there are no specific, legally binding standards for health care providers about HOW to make the Internet accessible for the disabled. Understanding the need for such specific legal standards, the U.S. Department of Justice is in the process of promulgating regulations that establish online accessibility requirements. This process is a lengthy, involved effort, with many people submitting public comments to the Justice Department about what the future regulations should include. The Justice Department may finish its rulemaking activity and release the new regulations sometime in 2017.
Meanwhile, health care and related organizations covered by Section 1557 should understand their current legal obligations to operate accessible websites and seek guidance from experts about how to comply with the Section 1557 accessibility mandates.
Read some of Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law.
© Bruce L. Adelson, special for Bromberg. 2017 All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.
Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Attorney.
Mr. Adelson teaches cultural and civil rights awareness at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.