The Wheels of (the Department of) Justice Turn Slowly
March 9, 2015 3:15 PM   Subscribe

The Department of Justice has postponed its NPRM on the accessibility requirements of websites for places of public accommodations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, from March 2015 to June 2015. The NPRM for accessibility requirements of government websites was due in December 2014.

Mosaic (funded by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, and the predecessor to Netscape, the predecessor to Mozilla Firefox) was released in 1994, the same year that David Bohnett and John Rezner founded Geocities, that Webcrawler (the first full-text search engine) was released, and that the Netscape team invented Secure Sockets Layer encryption, making it feasible to post online commerce sites like Amazon.com (1994 screenshot). In May 1995 Brendan Eich created JavaScript and Bill Gates sent his "The Internet Tidal Wave" memo; Internet Explorer 1.0 was released a few months later. In 1996 Internet Explorer introduced iframes to allow parts of a page to load asynchronously; 1996 was the same year that The White House, The United Nations, and The Internet Archive posted sites, as well as the year that Google began as a research project (it went public in 1998; archive.org has a snapshot from 1999).

With the introduction of XMLHTTP and ActiveX, it became possible to load a page, take user input (such as a search term or a click to add something to a shopping cart), then send the input to a server and change only part of the original webpage to show the results sent back from the server. It wasn't until the introduction of Gmail (this is not the Gmail you are looking for) that major players began to push standards-compliant AJAX websites

The point is: the web has changed a lot since the ADA was written--from something with static text-only pages which you had to access on a computer bigger than a backpack, using a connection you could hear establishing itself, at a speed where it might take a couple of minutes to download a 300x200 jpg, to fast and near omnipresent commerce, information, and entertainment available throughout most of the world on desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, and glasses.

The 1998 amendment of Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires any government agencies in the U.S. which federal funds to provide accessible websites; however it fails to address the obligations of government agencies which do not receive federal funds or to address the requirements for websites of places of public accommodations. The Attorney General released web accessibility standards in 2003 and expanded on them in 2007, but they do not read as legally binding (including, e.g. a "Voluntary Action Plan") and when compared against modern technology the standards are woefully inadequate. The ADA, amended in 2008, still fails to set out criteria for accessible websites.

To address this problem, on July 26, 2010 the Department of Justice published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about proposed revisions to ADA regulations clarifying obligations in re: the accessibility of web content of both government agencies (under Title II of the ADA) and public accommodations (under Title III of the ADA). In the ANPRM they questioned whether to require these websites to conform with Section 508 (regardless of whether the agency or group receives federal funding), or to conform with some level of WCAG 2.0, or to conform with both, or to conform with some other set of requirements.

The comment period ended on January 21, 2011. Since then, the NPRM date has been pushed back a number of times:

The NPRM for Title II of the ADA (applying to all government agencies) was scheduled for January 2012, then pushed back to December 2012, then to July 2013, then to November 2013, then to August 2014, and then to December 2014. It has apparently not been rescheduled.

The NPRM for Title III of the ADA (applying to places of public accommodations) was scheduled for January 2012, then pushed back to December 2012, then to July 2013, then to December 2013, then to March 2014, then to March 2015, then to June 2015.

Even in the absence of an NPRM codifying what the DOJ considers "accessible" in terms of today's websites, apps, and other internet-based communication, the DOJ has continued filing (or joining) lawsuits against various organizations as well as addressing the issue of website accessibility in cases primarily about other subjects. In these cases the DOJ has been fairly consistent in applying certain standards:

Settlements requiring compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA: Settlements addressing site accessibility but not requiring compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA: The World Wide Web Consortium has an intro to the issue of web accessibility, which goes way beyond "add alt text to images." (For more on that, see a11yproject's page on the myth that accessibility means planning only for blind site visitors or Microsoft's list of assistive devices.) The W3C also has an overview of WAI-ARIA as well as a list of various tools for automatic checking of your site's accessibility. Still, it's worth noting that automated tools can both miss issues (e.g. failing to flag some Javascript without a fully functional noscript alternative) and flag non-issues (e.g. citing low contrast ratios on elements which do have sufficient contrast, because of a failure to understand CSS inheritance).
Previously, more previously, yet more previously
posted by johnofjack (11 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, I left out Gopher, Usenet, NFB v. Target, etc. I thought it was probably long enough already.
posted by johnofjack at 3:20 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Your use of <abbr> tags is quite fitting here. Kudos.
posted by schmod at 5:07 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Flagged as fantastic. Thanks so much.

On preview, 1,000x yes to this:

The World Wide Web Consortium has an intro to the issue of web accessibility, which goes way beyond "add alt text to images." (For more on that, see a11yproject's page on the myth that accessibility means planning only for blind site visitors or Microsoft's list of assistive devices.)

As you included in your post, W3C's point on this, in the context of people who grumble about enacting web accessibility, bears shouting from the rooftops:

There is also a strong business case for accessibility. Accessibility overlaps with other best practices such as mobile web design, device independence, multi-modal interaction, usability, design for older users, and search engine optimization (SEO). Case studies show that accessible websites have better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach, among other benefits.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:58 PM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Awesome post, way more informative than most articles.
posted by odinsdream at 6:45 PM on March 9, 2015


This is great, thanks for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:46 PM on March 9, 2015


Ah, if anyone out there has a Selenium-capable solution for WCAG validation, I'd love to know about it... Looks like there is a way to get a Firefox addon to work for at least some checks, but it would be nice if there were more browser independence.
posted by underflow at 6:58 PM on March 9, 2015


This post is worth it just for the link to the archive.com "Gmail" site.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:33 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No surprise to me, sadly.

In the mid 1990s I worked at a company which included an ad agency. We were shown a device which consisted of an Apple laptop that had its display detached, its keyboard discarded, and the display reattached, facing outwards. It ran Netscape Navigator, and offered images of a house for the user to click on as an assistive technology for the speech-imparied. (You know, point at what you mean and the thing will speak its name.) They also had a box with the original 8-voice DEC speech chip in it to hook up to an Alpha keyboard. It was amazing seeing people already trying to repurpose tech this way.

At the same time, I was trying to get the management to care about having a web site. All the Professional Designers sneered at my own plain white web pages with black type [yes, "professional white" in 1995], because they had no style.

Ah! I replied, But even crude text-to-speech can handle these pages, whereas your pages are a hopeless jumble of type set in Photoshop and placed as a huge-ass image with a clickable imagemap tag. See that thing on the table across the room? Its users don't even know the *title* of your web page, but they can enjoy almost every element of mine.

The only result was one more tic mark in the "being right is not always enough" column. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 6:33 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


We were shown a device which consisted of an Apple laptop that had its display detached, its keyboard discarded, and the display reattached, facing outwards.

Was it one of the early Bliss symbolics-adapted Apples?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:55 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


mandolin conspiracy: Was it one of the early Bliss symbolics-adapted Apples?

No, the name Bliss is unknown to me. It looks like the "Assistive Technologies, Inc." company that I met was this group that got folded into Tobii. They used a PowerBook 3400, I think: it was pretty sweet!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:39 PM on March 10, 2015


Neato. Looks like they use their own user-defined lexicon.

Charles Bliss was an interesting character, to put it mildly. Bliss symbols can be used in dead tree formats as well via a "Bliss board."

He was kind of an asshole, though.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:13 PM on March 10, 2015


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