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September 29, 2022

Sen. Duckworth introduces bill to improve internet access for people with disabilities

Source: Washington Post


Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a bill Thursday that aims to improve internet access for people with disabilities.

Access has been especially difficult for blind and low-vision people, who have had issues using websites and have been pushing for improvements for years. Some of the most common issues, according to advocates supporting the bill, involve images and other items, such as buttons or headings on a website, being unlabeled or mislabeled in a way that blind people cannot navigate using screen readers, a device that reads labels and text fields out loud.

Despite numerous lawsuits against websites that blind people said were inaccessible, legal requirements for businesses and website creators have remained murky, the advocates say.

The Department of Justice attempted to clarify the issue earlier this year by issuing guidance that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to all online goods and services offered by public businesses and organizations. But Mark Riccobono, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, which is a key supporter of Duckworth’s bill, says that without a clear legal standard for what websites must do to be considered accessible, court rulings on the issue have been inconsistent.

“There’s still a lot of confusion and misinformation about web accessibility, the requirements and the standards,” he said. “Blind people, in the meantime, are left waiting, and we believe it’s time for Congress to speak on this issue.”

Duckworth’s Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act aims to clear this confusion by directing the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to create and enforce legal accessibility standards for websites. If the bill becomes a law, it would also give the U.S. Attorney General the ability to impose a civil penalty on websites that do not comply with the standards.

Duckworth said the goal of the legislation, though, isn’t to open up a “rash of federal lawsuits,” but to help businesses provide services to more people and have greater clarity on what standards would be most appropriate.

To help ease the transition, her legislation would also establish a technical assistance center and advisory committee to provide advice and resources to help website designers and others meet new accessibility standards.

Ensuring online accessibility has grown more critical since the pandemic, said Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind, which also supports this legislation. Many goods and services moved online, and access to the internet became integral to societal participation. Rachfal called the bill a good “starting point” for the future.

“It’s critical that rights of people with disabilities are protected as technology plays an increasing role in all of our lives,” he said.

Duckworth said the pandemic spurred her to act, because she realized how much the online access issues were negatively affecting people with cognitive or visual disabilities.

“It was ten times worse for members of the disability community to access information and the help that they needed,” she said. “Especially as covid went on, they became more and more isolated.”

She also said that she has seen firsthand the difference this access can make. When she was recovering in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from injuries she sustained serving in the armed forces, she said one of the other soldiers, who had lost his eyesight, struggled with using an iPhone touch screen. But now that iPhones have features that allow blind people to use them more easily, the soldier uses his iPhone daily, Duckworth said.

She hopes her bill can make it easier for other blind people to use the internet.

bill with similar goals was introduced in the House last year by Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), but failed to gain momentum.

By:  Amanda Morris

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