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Innovation

US to tighten accessibility law

A number of organisations in the US will have a legal duty to make their websites accessible to disabled people under proposed changes to US law.The US Department of Justice (DoJ) published a consultation document on 23 July which stated its intention to tighten up guidance on the American Disabilities Act (ADA) to make clear that the law explicitly covers the websites of a number of organisations.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

A number of organisations in the US will have a legal duty to make their websites accessible to disabled people under proposed changes to US law.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) published a consultation document on 23 July which stated its intention to tighten up guidance on the American Disabilities Act (ADA) to make clear that the law explicitly covers the websites of a number of organisations.

"The Department is exploring what regulatory guidance it can propose to make clear to entities covered by the ADA their obligations to make their websites accessible," said the document.

Entities covered by ADA include shops, hotels, restaurants, and sporting facilities. These entities are known as "places of public accommodation". DoJ said wants to clarify the law so it explicitly covers the online presence of these entities.

Organisations that could be affected by the law include online retailers such as Amazon, according to Pinsent Masons associate director Struan Robertson.

"The rules extension would cover sites like Amazon in the view of the DoJ," Robertson told ZDNet UK on Thursday. "According to Amazon, its site is already accessible."

Social networking sites like Facebook may also be included, said Robertson.

"Public accommodations include any place of public gathering, and you could argue that Facebook would be covered by that," said Robertson.

The DoJ wants sites to conform to an accessibility specification called 'Level AA'. New sites and web pages will have six months to conform to the standard, while existing sites will have two years.

Robertson said that US businesses would have their work cut out to comply with the proposed changes to the regulation.

"I don't think organisations in the US have appreciated how much work it will take if [the regulation] is passed," said Robertson. "It's going to come as a shock to a lot of websites – making them meet Level AA is going to be tough, really tough."

Organisations like newspapers would probably not be covered by the proposed legal change, said Robertson.

Some websites may oppose the proposed change to ADA in court, technology law publication Out-Law.com reported on Tuesday.

ADA litigator Larry Paradis told Out-Law.com that he expected a battle when the DoJ plans were finalised.

"I do expect that there will be court challenges," Paradis told Out-Law.com. "Businesses will resist this. This is about the Justice Department's power to regulate the internet. Businesses have resisted regulations by the DOJ in a number of contexts. Will the court find that the DOJ's rules are valid interpretations of the federal ADA? That will be the big fight."

Robertson told ZDNet UK that there was not the same reticence in the US to be seen to be opposing disability rights as in the UK.

"In the UK there would be a greater risk to business to put up public resistance [in court], because this could have an impact on public perception."

Robertson added that UK law already covers accessibility provisions for UK websites.

"The Disability Discrimination Act talks in general terms of removing barriers, and specifically includes information services," said Robertson.

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