Sunday, July 26, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. During WebAIM’s 20th anniversary year, we take this opportunity to cherish this landmark legislation which codified equal opportunity and protections for those with disabilities.
For many, it is difficult to recall the reality of life before the ADA. Concepts like “self-determination”, “independent living”, and even “choice” were battlegrounds for those with disabilities. The ADA provided both aspirations and legal protections that facilitated great improvements.
During the signing ceremony, George H.W. Bush indicated:
Our success with this act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These words have been our guide for more than two centuries as we’ve labored to form our more perfect union. But tragically, for too many Americans, the blessings of liberty have been limited or even denied. The Civil Rights Act of ’64 took a bold step towards righting that wrong. But the stark fact remained that people with disabilities were still victims of segregation and discrimination, and this was intolerable. Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There is no doubt that the ADA has had an enormous positive impact on web accessibility. Court cases and the Department of Justice have clarified that while the word “internet” never appears in the ADA, the intent of the law includes it. The ADA has positively impacted web content as it affects rights to employment, rights to public services, and rights to participate in places that offer goods and services to the general public (i.e., public accommodations).
While we look at the positive trajectory of digital accessibility, there is still much to accomplish. This anniversary provides us all an opportunity to reflect, and to act.
The current digital landscape is full of seemingly intractable barriers. COVID-19 illuminated vulnerabilities that were always there. WebAIM is one of many groups to battle the swell of inaccessible web content. As a community we have had enormous success, yet given the proliferation of the web, these successes feel almost buried. Many studies, including the WebAIM Million point to a grim reality, that far too few websites conform to accessibility standards. The same is seen across social sectors (e.g., Alexa top 100 sites, colleges and universities, federal government, nonprofits, and disability organizations). The need for increased web accessibility is desired across the globe. Because of rampant inaccessibility, those with disabilities and advocacy groups who fight on their behalf engage in a high volume of complaints, negotiated settlements, and litigation (e.g., LFLegal, UsableNet).
We are among those who believed that the promised creation of digital accessibility rules under ADA would improve digital accessibility outcomes. Private businesses have long awaited this needed clarity. We are frustrated that the Department of Justice stopped the rulemaking process for defining accessibility requirements for websites covered under the ADA. This frustration was exacerbated when the DOJ put the rulemaking on their “inactive” list due to changes in the regulatory landscape under the Trump Administration.
When entities understand their obligations, and the standard and manner to which they must comply, they will be more likely to attain success. While these are not yet clearly defined under the ADA, entities have exposure to complaints and litigation nonetheless. Despite these setbacks, we believe that entities have little excuse if they are not already making reasonable progress toward accessibility. We will celebrate the day when proper rulemaking is completed.
Until that time, each of us can, in the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, work to achieve its aims. WebAIM will continue its work to expand the potential of the web for people with disabilities by empowering individuals and organizations to create accessible content. We’ll continue our work to provide knowledge, technical skills, tools, organizational leadership strategies, and vision in all that we do. We hope to celebrate another 20 years in the future.
We invite you to reflect on your work and the ADA. Hopefully you will see yourself in this continuing struggle. Then, let us celebrate thirty remarkable years as we each work to attain civil rights under the ADA. May we fulfil our obligation, poignantly spoken during its signing:
The ADA is a dramatic renewal not only for those with disabilities but for all of us, because along with the precious privilege of being an American comes a sacred duty to ensure that every other American’s rights are also guaranteed… Our problems are large, but our unified heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And in our America, the most generous, optimistic nation on the face of the Earth, we must not and will not rest until every man and woman with a dream has the means to achieve it.