April 20, 2024


Simply Consistent

How New DOJ Guidelines Can Make the Web More Accessible for Disabled People

Key Takeaways

  • The Department of Justice issued web accessibility guidelines on how websites can be more accessible to blind people, others with low vision, and people with other disabilities.
  • Any entity receiving federal funding should already have accessible websites, but this is often not the case. 
  • Inaccessible websites can make it difficult for people to register to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or booster, make a doctor’s appointment, ask for a refill of medication, and more.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued web accessibility guidelines on how state and local governments, as well as businesses open to the public, can make their websites more accessible to blind people, others with low vision, and people with other disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, establishing the right of reasonable accommodations for the disability community. However, internet access has not always been equitable for disabled people. And due to the pandemic, more and more aspects of people’s lives and healthcare transitioned online. Making doctor’s appointments, refilling prescriptions, and registering for COVID-19 vaccines and boosters now all largely exist virtually.

“People with disabilities deserve to have an equal opportunity to access the services, goods, and programs provided by government and businesses, including when offered or communicated through websites,” the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke, JD, said in a press release.

The new web guidance on the DOJ’s website includes information about key ways websites tend to be inaccessible, which include the following:

  • Websites have poor color contrast. For example, a website that has black text on a dark gray background.
  • There is no alternative text or lackluster alternative text for screen readers to read.
  • There are no captions on videos, which affects deaf and hard-of-hearing users. 

Web accessibility experts and advocates who spoke to Verywell spoke positively about the new guidelines, but emphasized the difference between guidelines, which the DOJ’s were, and regulations.

“The only discouraging thing for me is that they are guidelines, they’re not regulations, which is different,” Alexa Heinrich, web accessibility expert, told Verywell. Heinrich believes that more specific instructions on how websites can be more accessible could be helpful for local governments, health entities, and businesses.

Other experts appreciated that the language points to why accessibility is important for the disability community, rather than encouraging accessibility as a way to avoid an ADA lawsuit.

“One thing I like about the notice they put out is they gave genuine tips as to how to make the web accessible, and information about people with disabilities,” Meenakshi Das, MS, a software engineer at Microsoft and accessibility advocate, told Verywell.

Existing Web Guidelines

This is not the first time that the federal government has issued web accessibility standards. Entities, like hospitals and universities, that receive federal funding have to follow standards set forth by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act.

According to the U.S. Access Board, accessibility under 508 extends to “computers, telecommunications equipment, multifunction office machines such as copiers that also operate as printers, software, websites, information kiosks and transaction machines, and electronic documents.” Section 255 covers telecommunication devices like phones and computers.

However, not all health entities receive federal funding. The new web accessibility guidelines could be a strong push to make sure independent health organizations make their services accessible to blind people and those with other disabilities.

“For those who are not, [like] independent healthcare agencies, the place where you go to book your MRI online…they may not be covered, and so a firmer statement from the DOJ would regulate that access to schedules for booking appointments online for getting a prescription refill everything that you can think of,” Geoff Freed, the director of Perkins School of the Blind’s Perkins Access Consulting, told Verywell.

Accessibility Is Crucial

Many of the changes that the DOJ recommends for accessibility are not that difficult to make from a design perspective, but they are absolutely necessary to make for the disability community to access healthcare.

For example, if a local health department were to make a graph to show how COVID-19 is affecting their community and they fail to include alternative text, people using screen readers cannot tell what the graph is saying.

What Are Screen Readers?

Blind people and those with low vision may use screen readers to access the internet. Screen readers are software programs that read the text on a computer screen or another device to a user who is blind or has low vision. “A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user,” according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

“In recent times due to COVID-19, visualizations and graphs of COVID-related information have become very popular and most of them are not accessible,” Das said. “Making graphs and visualizations accessible can be tough—it requires work, but the least they can do is provide an image description or a written description of the graph.”

Getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 is crucial to protect both the disability community and society at large. According to Kaiser Health News, nearly all web pages to sign up to get vaccinated contained accessibility issues, creating barriers for blind people and others with low vision to register.

Due to these kinds of previous barriers, Freed said it was necessary that the DOJ’s guidance brought up issues about inaccessible online forms.

“Those need to be designed accessibly so that somebody who can’t see the screen can still understand what they’re supposed to type into form fields,” Freed said.

Freed also hopes that these guidelines, which are recognized under the ADA, will pressure people to make their websites and telehealth platforms accessible because “lawsuits are remarkable motivators.”

Whether it’s COVID-19 information or another emergency like hurricane information, Heinrich, who is based in Florida, encouraged people to question how inaccessibility is putting people in danger.

“How many people are you excluding from vital information when you don’t make your information accessible?” she said.

By making websites and telehealth platforms accessible, everyone benefits. Even for people who do not have disabilities, clearer instructions, for example, can make it easier to fill out an online form.

“The basic rule in our industry that we all follow is that when you design something to be accessible, it improves the experience for absolutely everybody,” Freed said.

What This Means For You

The web accessibility guidelines from the DOJ could be viewed as minimum standards. There is always more people can do to make websites accessible. For more thorough examples, you can visit sites like the Web Accessibility Initiative.