Sunday, June 8, 2014

Accessibility Regulation Confusion from U.S. Government

There has been some activity lately from the U.S. federal government related to accessibility requirements for web sites. Unfortunately, that activity is sending a mixed message to many burdened with making a case for accessibility compliance in the private sector.

Good News

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) made news in the accessibility community back in March by issuing a Consent Decree in a case with H&R Block requiring H&R Block to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. From the DoJ press release:

On Dec. 11, 2013, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts filed a complaint in intervention in the lawsuit National Federal [sic] of the Blind (NFB) et al. v. HRB Digital LLC et al. to enforce Title III of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. […]

[…] The recognized international industry standards for web accessibility, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, can be found online and are freely available to help companies ensure that individuals with disabilities can fully and equally enjoy their web-based goods and services.

Under the terms of the five year decree, H&R Block’s website, tax filing utility and mobile apps will conform to the Level AA Success Criteria of the WCAG 2.0. […] H&R Block will also pay $45,000 to the two individual plaintiffs, and a $55,000 civil penalty.

Essentially the DoJ stepped into a lawsuit, identified an accepted standard to follow, and put some teeth in its action in the form of a financial penalty (both in cash and H&R Block's cost to rebuild its offerings). For those who champion accessibility, this is a win.

It's not the first. Back in 2012 the DoJ filed a Statement of Interest in a battle between Netflix (never mind that it's in a PDF) and the National Association of the Deaf that the absence of closed captioning violates the ADA. Earlier this year it also filed a Statement of Interest in a case against Lucky Brand Jeans (another PDF) for its inaccessible customer-facing credit card swipe machines (which probably inhabit far more stores than just Lucky's).

The DoJ has effectively been enforcing ADA laws for private entities, not just state and local governments. This is A Good Thing™

Bad News

Let's ignore the fact that the DoJ can't get the name of the National Federation of the Blind correct in a press release, or that the ADA site provides Statements of Interest from the DoJ as PDF files (you can learn some more about PDF accessibility at Denis Boudreau's a11y Tips site).

The Laws

The DoJ was expected to release a set of legally binding standards for web site accessibility back in April. That deadline flew by with hardly a word from the DoJ. Instead, buried in a Unified Agenda (a catch-all planning document), The DoJ casually mentioned that it's been delayed until March of 2015. You can credit Seyfarth Shaw LLP for catching that one.

As the Law Office of Lainey Feingold notes, this has been happening for years:

The web regulations have been pending since July 26, 2010 when the DOJ issued its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM). The public comment period ended on January 24, 2011. Ever since then, the DOJ has been announcing deadlines for the next step — and then moving those deadlines as the target date approaches.

Enforcement

The H&R Block Consent Decree has some dates associated with adhering to the ruling. One of them (14.d) has come and gone:

  1. Web Accessibility Policy [underline theirs, not mine]: By June 1, 2014, H&R Block shall adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy consistent with the attachment at Exhibit A and as approved by the Private Plaintiffs and the United States. By June 1, 2014, H&R Block shall: […]
    1. make publicly available and directly link from the www.hrblock.com homepage, a statement of H&R Block’s policy to ensure that persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of H&R Block, through www.hrblock.com, its mobile applications, and its Online Tax Preparation Product; […]

When I visit the H&R Block home page, I see no link or content related to accessibility, disabilities, nor the ADA (if I am wrong, please correct me). I even made an archived version from the Wayback Machine so you can see it in case H&R Block changes it tomorrow (see how you can make your own).

Granted, that requirement is only a week overdue, but given that the DoJ is four years overdue on issuing regulations, one could argue that deadlines don't carry much weight with the DoJ.

Just Setting a Good Example

The DoJ site itself is not exactly a shining beacon of accessibility. From the odd image map on the logo (really, one image, two links to the same location?) to text as images, it could use some help. If you head over to the DoJ Acccessibility Information page you will see it states that the DoJ is committed to provide its content in accordance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

If you've been working in web accessibility, then you may be aware of the government web site devoted to Section 508, which requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, and which is intended to be used by federal employees: Section508.gov

As I challenged on Twitter, try using it with your keyboard. Go ahead. Just try it.

For the more technical among my readers, here's an example of the CSS declarations of agony (files linked in this tweet):

For added fun, find the Skip link and then see where it takes you.

The government body in charge of creating rules for making sites accessible is built based on the requirements of a federal site that itself is a complete cluster. It may, in fact, be a brilliant parody site showing government workers how not to build a compliant site.

Or it might really be the best they can do.

What You Should Do

Keep coding (or start coding) your sites to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level A and AA Success Criteria. This is the requirement the DoJ put in its ruling against H&R Block, the most recent example we have of where the federal government is defining a standard.

And then stop worrying. As WebAIM notes, fear of litigation isn't the best reason to make a site accessible. You should do it because it's the right thing to do. Of course, in my HTML5 Developer Conference talk, I argue that making accessibility all about you (slide 13) is probably a more effective means of getting developers to implement, but I leave that decision up to your personal level of narcissism.

Related

  • Assets, the accessible, Bootstrap-based development framework from the federal government (really from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services).

Update: June 9, 2014

Read my post about Assets, the U.S. government framework based on Bootstrap 3, and PayPal's accessibility plug-in, which promises to make your existing Bootstrap implementation accessible: Accessible Bootstrap Frameworks

Update: June 25, 2014

In a release last week from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the NFB and a blind business owner reached an agreement with the Small Business Administration because its web site violated Section 508 (read a brief from the law firm representing the NFB). This is newsworthy for two reasons:

  • The SBA is a government agency and is being held to the only current federal law pertaining to web site accessibility, effectively stating the government has to follow its own rules.
  • The Section508.gov site, the one housing the rules to which the SBA is being held, doesn't follow those very rules, as I noted above.

I am struggling to find a way to describe how absurd this is. I am open to suggestions.

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