Elizabeth Whitmer

Elizabeth Whitmer

Director, Consulting Expert

April 8, 2024, was a historic day for two reasons; first, a total solar eclipse crossed over North America, providing a path of totality that made it accessible to millions of people within the United States. Later that same day, the Department of Justice (DOJ) signed a final rule under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), providing new regulations and deadlines that seek to make web and mobile content more accessible to millions of people with disabilities within the U.S.

Accessibility and the web – past rulings

The disability community has been waiting for this day for a long time. When the ADA was signed in 1990, no one could have predicted how prevalent technology would become in the future. Over the years, there have been questions about whether the ADA applies to the accessibility of digital content, such as websites and mobile applications. Former congressman Tony Coelho, who was the primary person responsible for authoring and spearheading the ADA, has maintained that it does apply to digital accessibility, having told Forbes in 2020:

“When the ADA was enacted, the internet was not as pervasive as it is today, so the ADA did not specifically cover it. I feel strongly that digital accessibility should be included in the ADA.”

Since 2010, the DOJ has made attempts at strengthening the ADA regulations around digital content, but this is the first time we’ve seen the regulations finalized. Most notably, in 2017, the DOJ withdrew an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking for new ADA web and mobile regulations as the result of a larger presidential initiative to reduce regulation and control regulatory costs. The following year, ADA web and mobile accessibility lawsuits started exploding, increasing ~181% between 2017 and 2018. Since then, lawsuits have continued to increase, jumping from 814 in 2017 to 4,600 in 2023, as noted in UsableNet’s 2023 Year End Report: ADA Digital Accessibility Lawsuit Trends Involving: Websites, Mobile, or Video.

The overall goal of the DOJ’s ruling is to confirm accessibility expectations around web and mobile content as it pertains to the ADA. By establishing clear expectations for accessibility conformance, the DOJ can help ensure that people with disabilities can equitably access the information and services they need from their state and local governments. In the following sections, I break down some of the key aspects of the DOJ ruling as well as provide recommendations for how state and local governments can get started on their accessibility journey. 

Understanding the new web accessibility ruling

The DOJ’s web and mobile content accessibility rule was formally published in the Federal Register on April 24, 2024. The DOJ explained its intentions behind the new ruling as part of the press release they issued, stating that: 

“This final rule clarifies the obligations of state and local governments to make their websites and mobile applications accessible. Every day, people across the country use the web and mobile apps to access public programs and services, including emergency information, courts, healthcare providers, schools, voting information, parking, permit applications, tax payments, and transit updates. If these technologies are not accessible, it can be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access critical services.”

Some of the critical aspects of the DOJ’s web and mobile content accessibility rule include the following: 

  • Applies to state and local governments: The ADA is a national mandate for eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities that is divided into five areas: employment (Title I), state and local government (Title II), public accommodations and services by private entities (Title III). Telecommunications (Title IV) and Miscellaneous (Title V). While the new DOJ ruling is specific to Title II for state and local governments, there have been reports that the DOJ could issue similar regulations in the future for Title III as well.  
  • Covers web and mobile content: The ruling applies to web and mobile content that a state or local government provides or makes available, including content procured by an external entity (e.g., a contractor). It also includes content that might not initially come to mind, such as social media content. There are some exceptions documented in the final rule that mostly pertain to certain types of archived or historical content, as well as content that is posted by members of the public or others who are not acting on behalf of the government.  
  • Mandates conformance with WCAG 2.1 AA (at a minimum): The ruling states that state and local governments must make their web and mobile content comply with an internationally recognized set of accessibility guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, version 2.1, Level AA. It further states, however, that state and local governments can also provide web or mobile content that follows a higher standard than WCAG 2.1 AA if they wish to do so. For example, New York recently became the first state to require that their state agency websites conform with the latest version of WCAG (currently version 2.2). 
  • Provides a deadline of two-three years for compliance: State and local governments have two-three years to make their web and mobile content accessible. Specifically, entities that have 50,000 or more people will have two years (by April 24, 2026) to comply with the final rule, while entities that have fewer than 50,000 people, or those that represent a special district government, will have three years (by April 26, 2027). 

Where to start: Implementing the new ruling in your government agency

State and local government representatives may be wondering how to tackle the regulations and deadlines set forth by the DOJ’s ruling.

Let’s start by taking a look into a few different recommendations for getting started:

  1. Creating an accessibility roadmap for remediating existing content
  2. Integrating accessibility into human-centered design (HCD) practices for future content 
  3. Leveraging change management strategies for implementing and sustaining accessibility change

Creating an accessibility roadmap for remediating existing content

As a first step towards meeting the new ADA Title II deadlines, state and local governments must understand the current state of accessibility across their agency’s existing portfolio of web and mobile content. Government agencies can establish this “accessibility baseline” by performing comprehensive WCAG 2.1 AA assessments of their existing web and mobile content. If these assessments have already been performed in the past, I recommend revisiting the findings to ensure that they reflect the current state of accessibility. If some of the web or mobile content is maintained by a third-party vendor(s), agencies should request the latest version of the applicable Accessibility Conformance Reports (ACR) and review the vendor’s claims regarding their level of conformance with WCAG 2.1 AA.  

Once an accessibility baseline has been established, a roadmap can be created to address the conformance gaps by the deadline. The “accessibility roadmap” can be created by:

  • Prioritizing the accessibility issues across various factors (e.g., issue severity, end-user impact, the level of effort required to fix, etc.) 
  • Grouping the accessibility issues into related categories for fixing (e.g., all issues related to a specific component/widget)
  • Defining the remediation timeline so that it aligns with the applicable deadline for conformance

If possible, consider having your accessibility roadmap/remediation plan reviewed by any disability groups that exist within your state/local government so that they can provide their feedback on the options available for remediating issues with the highest severity/impact.  

Note: It may be tempting to focus the majority of efforts solely on addressing this first recommendation as a result of the deadlines imposed by the new ruling. However, it’s important to note that it is the efforts focused on the following two recommendations that will yield the best accessibility returns in the future since they establish the foundation for how content can be created accessibly by the various people within the organization moving forward. Therefore, I recommend that state and local governments allocate time and resources to working on all three of the efforts in parallel as part of their future accessibility journey. 

Integrating accessibility into human-centered design (HCD) practices for future content 

HCD is a design mindset and methodology that puts people at the center of solving complex problems and creating innovative solutions. With HCD as the foundation, state and local governments can incorporate accessibility considerations and practices into the creation of web and mobile content in the future. HCD encourages the design of solutions that are inclusive of the broadest diversity of needs and perspectives possible and typically results in designs that are both accessible and adaptive to change.

Moreover, considering accessibility as part of HCD allows us to account for the needs of people with disabilities as early as possible when designing and developing new content. When accessibility is relegated to being solely a “testing activity,” there typically is no opportunity to discuss how we can cater the designs and overall user experience to best support people with disabilities. In contrast, “baking” accessibility into HCD activities often leads to finding fewer accessibility issues later as part of testing since many of the discussions regarding the accessibility experience will have already been addressed early on.

Let’s look at a simple example to help illustrate these points. Imagine that your agency is creating a new mobile app to allow employees to upload the pictures they take while touring a new facility. WCAG 2.1 AA requires that a text alternative be provided for any non-text content, such as images. However, employees will not be able to specify what the image’s text alternative/description should be if there isn’t a field provided within the user interface (UI) that collects this information. Adding the necessary text description field early on as part of the HCD process – while the product design is still underway and development has not yet started – will take far less time and resources to implement than it would if the team were to try to implement it at the very end of the project when the UI has already been built out. Adding this functionality as part of HCD is also the best time to consider how the field impacts the overall business processes and user experience so that you can make adjustments as needed. 

Leveraging change management strategies for implementing and sustaining accessibility change

I’ve often heard accessibility referred to as “a journey, not a destination.” This is because there is never an “endpoint” for when accessibility work is finished; instead, it is something that you continually work on throughout the life cycle of a program and, therefore, requires careful, long-term planning and oversight to be successful.  

Achieving long-term accessibility success involves cultivating a culture in which each person accepts and understands their mutual accessibility responsibility. A robust organizational change management (OCM) strategy can help the organization roll out new training and accessibility processes, such as the HCD processes described in recommendation #2, and manage any potential resistance to the changes. At CGI, we’ve also experienced success when combining multiple practices involving people – including HCD, OCM, training, business/functional architects, benefits realization and accessibility – into an integrated “transformation team” to help guide digital transformation projects. A transformation team helps to avoid silos within the project and ensure that all of our people-focused areas are in sync with one another, which in turn helps to deliver a cohesive experience to stakeholders. 

State and local governments can also define what “accessibility success” looks like by defining measurable outcomes and tying them to the existing mission, vision, and/or values that the agency may already have for fostering inclusion and promoting the best interests of the people within their locality. As we make accessibility progress in the activities related to recommendations #1 and #2, we can also share these “quick wins” with the rest of the team to reinforce what we would like to see more of in the future. 

Previous accessibility rulings for federal sites

While the new DOJ ruling is historic in relation to the ADA, the existence of digital accessibility policies and regulations is not something new. For example, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was amended in 1998 to require U.S. federal agencies to make their digital content accessible to people with disabilities. In 2023, the General Services Administration (GSA) released the first Governmentwide Section 508 Assessment to report on the progress of digital accessibility across the federal government. State and local government representatives may find it helpful to review the highlighted findings from this report for lessons learned as well as observations on what makes a successful accessibility program. 

Moving forward

Even though responding to the new DOJ ruling may seem like a significant undertaking, keep in mind that there are a few key, actionable steps agencies can take early on as part of their accessibility journey to establish a solid foundation for success. 

Explore our HCD consulting capabilities or connect with an expert to learn more about our accessibility approach or how we support our clients for accessibility.

About this author

Elizabeth Whitmer

Elizabeth Whitmer

Director, Consulting Expert

Elizabeth Whitmer, a Director in the U. S. CSG Business Consulting organization, is a digital accessibility professional who has served the public sector since 2008.