October 05, 2022

It's personal for Tammy Duckworth

Source: Politico


Protections for people with disabilities haven’t kept pace with the digital age, especially when it comes to ensuring online accessibility and ease of use for devices.

It’s a personal issue for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both her legs in Iraq when her Army helicopter was shot down in 2004. She and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) have new legislation that would require the Justice Department to issue regulations spelling out websites’ responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 32-year-old ADA was written before websites existed and whether it covers them is being debated in states as courts have dismissed website accessibility claims. That gray area extends to software, hardware and web-enabled devices, which now include everything from thermostats to tractors.

Duckworth’s bill would also explicitly require software and app developers to design accessible products for people with disabilities.

Ruth spoke with Duckworth about why the senator believes all technology needs to be accessible and what the barriers are. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about the timing of the bill? Why now?

During Covid, I was trying to get to the CDC websites. I was trying to get to various other websites to get information, and it was hard enough to navigate for someone who’s not visually impaired or cognitively impaired. And so it really was an impetus for me.

How have your personal experiences influenced the crafting of this bill?

I just remember being at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] 17 years ago when I was recovering, and one of the guys that I recovered with lost his vision.

After we went from flip phones to the iPhone, he couldn’t use his phone anymore because he couldn’t work the touchscreen. Firsthand, I saw the struggles of those within the disability community.

What are the biggest barriers to ADA compliance?

Money? I do think that a lot of places just don’t want to spend the money to retrofit their websites and applications. But if you build an ADA-compliant website to begin with, you don’t have to retrofit them. It doesn’t cost you any more money.

This is a problem for federal websites as well. Does that concern you?

I want to make sure that there’s a clear, enforceable accessibility standard. My bill would also establish a technical assistance center and an advisory committee that’s going to help folks make the websites accessible and to help the appropriate federal entities.

SIGNS OF INTEREST: The Senate Aging Committee is conducting oversight on the accessibility of federal websites and technology. In June, Chair Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and ranking member Tim Scott (R-S.C.), along with other lawmakers, wrote to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Attorney General Merrick Garland to pressure them to get more involved.