On this 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we at AFB are thinking of all the ways that technology plays in role in meeting the expectations of this valuable and groundbreaking civil rights legislation. Thanks to the ADA, we have come to expect equality and access in every part of public life. Truly, people who are blind or have low vision have greater access to jobs, businesses, life in the community, and government services because the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
Yet, when it comes to the computer-based technologies that form the foundation of so many advances in these same spaces, there is a long way to go to achieve the expectations of the ADA for full participation, independent living, equality of opportunity, and economic self-sufficiency. Granted, technology has an incredible opportunity to level the playing field and open doors of opportunity. Screen readers and magnification software provide instantaneous access to information that once needed to be converted to an accessible format or read aloud by another person. Smart home systems can literally open doors. Movies can be enjoyed by all with audio description and captioning. There has been so much progress, but still our recent Barriers to Digital Inclusion Study and the work of Talent Lab demonstrate that these gains are only realized if these technologies are designed and developed with accessibility and usability in mind.
Engaging and embracing the ADA is as important as ever. We are seeing emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), Virtual Reality (VR) and so many others gaining ever more mainstream acceptance and use. As is often the case, these advances generate a massive amount of excitement followed by questions about how to create the rules that govern their use. Whether we are discussing an AI Bill of Rights or transforming transportation systems, the spirit and the letter of the ADA must continue to inform how we use new technologies.
For over 33 years, the ADA has definitively transformed the way average people think about access and inclusion. And today, AFB is working hard to be sure that new laws and regulations continue to transform the status quo. Fortunately, we have much to celebrate this week in the spirit of the ADA.
The Biden Administration has approved the first proposed rule that would require websites and mobile apps used by state and local governments be accessible to people with disabilities. We are excited to dig into the details of this proposal and provide thoughtful comments on the government’s approach. We encourage you to read the forthcoming rulemaking and offer your own perspectives. Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, we will have 60 days to respond.
In its meeting Tuesday, the U.S. Access Board also announced the publication of a final rule on public rights of way accessibility is coming soon. These rules would ensure that sidewalks and pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way are accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. These rules have been more than 15 years coming. That’s why setting a deadline for the rules was a key part of the Disability Access to Transportation Act, which AFB endorses. Of note, even though this standard will soon be final, the Department of Transportation must also adopt the rules and has plans to do so by next spring.
In addition, yesterday, Senator Markey and Congresswoman Eshoo re-introduced the Communications, Video, and Technology Accessibility Act to build on past laws requiring video conferencing services, video programming delivered via streaming, and emerging communications modes to be accessible. This bill responds to concerns that AFB has raised including access to quality audio description and the full accessibility of video conferencing services. Communications and video programming have for a long time been treated separately from the ADA, so we are pleased to see their efforts to continue the modernization of media and communications accessibility.
Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. Just today, the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House of Representatives is holding a hearing on autonomous vehicle legislation that could determine whether this potentially transformational technology is usable by people with disabilities. AFB worked on a joint letter from the community identifying the many ways in which this legislation can be improved to ensure access for people with disabilities. After all, autonomous vehicles will only transform our transportation access if lawmakers can embrace the spirit of accessibility and full participation that the ADA embodies.
We also continue to advocate for the reintroduction of the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act. This proposed bill is a priority for AFB. Not only does it ensure that accessibility rules are issued in a timely manner for all types of websites and apps (not just those used by governments), but it also makes digital creators more accountable for building a fully accessible digital environment. We believe this bill will build upon the legacy of the ADA to shift the landscape for digital accessibility.
The ADA is and will remain the foundation of our rights. It is as applicable now as ever. These new laws are building blocks to respond and improve to our ever-changing world, and we are excited to be a part of bringing the ADA’s mandate for full inclusion to reality.