On The 25th Anniversary Of The ADA, The Future Of Online Accessibility Is In Limbo

The White House is still reviewing rules for how websites should accommodate those with disabilities.

President Barack Obama may be talking to telepresence robots in the White House, but his administration is still deciding to what extent website operators should accommodate the disabled people using them. 

When the White House celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this week, a key decision was missing from the long list of actions the administration touted: how the landmark accessibility law applied to websites for governments and covered entities.

It's now been more than four years since comments closed on a notice for proposed rulemaking in which the Justice Department asked for public feedback on what standards for accessibility should be applied online, along with associated costs. 

The department wrote:

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, the Internet as we know it today did not exist. Today, the Internet -- most notably the sites of the World Wide Web -- plays a critical role in the daily personal, professional, civic, and business life of Americans. Increasingly, governmental and private entities covered by the ADA are providing goods, services, and programs to the public through their websites. However, many of these websites are not readily accessible to individuals with disabilities.  

A Department of Justice spokesman said today that the rule is currently under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget. There was no estimate for when it will become active.

When it does, watch out. There are a breathtaking number of websites and Web services that could be deemed to provide "public accommodation" under the ADA. Offline, any business that provides food, lodging, fuel or entertainment to the public is considered a public accommodation under federal anti-discrimination laws. Law firms have been anticipating this regulation for years, of course, offering legal guidance on whether a website might violate the ADA.

What's less clear is how apps and social media will be affected. Over the past four years, a majority of Americans have adopted smartphones and begun using social media platforms. Apple has notably good accessibility in the iPhone, as demonstrated in the video below.

Social media companies vary in how well they support Americans with disabilities. While third-party software exists to help the blind navigate Facebook, participating in Pinterest, Tumblr or Instagram may be more challenging. 

New mobile "civic social networks" like Civic Eagle or Brigade, despite embracing inclusion in their public statements, may not build accessibility into their technology from the beginning.

"We're trying to be accessible to as many people as possible," Brigade CEO Matt Mahan told me this spring. "While we haven't been able to add functionality, it's something we care about; we will invest in it over time."

As private social media platforms like Facebook become more important for news discovery and are used as public forums by candidates seeking elected office, it will be increasingly important to make sure they are accessible to all Americans.

This past week, Obama experienced firsthand the way technology can connect us when he used a computer to communicate with a young woman who is deaf and blind.

Hopefully, that knowledge will inform how his administration takes action to ensure that advances in technology do not leave some of us behind.