Earlier this month, in the waning moments of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) took the long-anticipated step of requiring websites of federal government agencies to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA.  (The Access Board was established in 1973 to develop and maintain standards for accessible design in the built environment, transit vehicles and systems, telecommunications equipment and electronic and information technology.)

On Thursday, January 5, 2017, the Access Board announced the release of the long anticipated “Information and Communication Technology (“ITC”) Standards and Guidelines,” which update and combine the previously separate requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (requiring federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities) and Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 (requiring telecommunication equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities), into one rule.  The ITC Standards and Guidelines (also referred to as the “508 Refresh”) were officially released by the Access Board on Monday, January 9, 2017 and published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017.

This final rule includes the following noteworthy changes from the previously published Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”):

  • Provides a “Safe Harbor” provision;
  • Incorporates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA by reference;
  • Covers all types of public-facing content, as well as nine (9) categories of non-public-facing content that communicate agency official business; and
  • Extends the previously contemplated compliance dates.

Application

To Whom Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Apply?

The Section 508-based ITC Standards apply only to Federal Agencies subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 who develop, procure, maintain or use ITC and is intended to ensure Federal employees with disabilities have comparable access to, and use of, such information and data relative to other Federal employees unless doing so would impose an undue burden.

The Section 255-based guidelines apply to manufactures of telecommunication equipment and address the accessibility of newly released, upgraded, or substantially changed telecommunications equipment (as well as support documentation and services, including electronic documents and web-based product support) subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934.

Who Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Not Apply To?

  • Private Businesses – including healthcare, retail, hospitality, financial services, etc.;
  • State and Local Government Agencies;
  • Public Schools;
  • Colleges; and
  • Non Profit Entities.

It should be noted, however, that when the DOJ publishes proposed website accessibility regulations applicable to the private sector, and consistent with the DOJ’s long standing position, website accessibility will very likely be defined as compliance with WCAG 2.0, levels A and AA, just as the Access Board has used these guidelines in the Section 508 Refresh.

Deadlines

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017 the Access Board held a briefing at their Washington, D.C. office to provide a top level overview of these new rules and to provide a public question and answer session.  During this meeting, the Access Board reinforced the following information:

  • The final rule was set to be “effective” 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, as the final rule was published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the “effective” date was set to be Sunday, March 19, 2017.  (It is worth noting on January 20, 2017, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a memorandum from the White House to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a sixty (60) day postponement of the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Registry but not yet taken effect.  Therefore, this date may yet be delayed.)
  • Notwithstanding that deadline:
    • Compliance with the Section 508-based Standards is not required until 12 months from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, the anticipated date of compliance for the Section 508-based Standards will be Thursday, January 18, 2018; and
    • Compliance with the Section 255-based guidelines will not be required until the guidelines are adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Our colleagues Joshua Stein, co-chair of Epstein Becker Green’s ADA and Public Accommodations Group, and Stephen Strobach, Accessibility Specialist, have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry:  “DOJ Refreshes Its Efforts to Promulgate Title II Website Accessibility Regulations and Other Accessible Technology Updates – What Does It All Suggest for Businesses?”

Following is an excerpt:

On April 28, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities.  This original initiative, which was commenced at the 20th Anniversary of the ADA in 2010, was expected to result in a final NPRM setting forth website accessibility regulations for state and local government entities later this year. Instead, citing a need to address the evolution and enhancement of technology (both with respect to web design and assistive technology for individuals with disabilities) and to collect more information on the costs and benefits associated with making websites accessible, DOJ “refreshed” its regulatory process and, instead, on May 9, 2016, published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) in the federal register. …

The questions posed in the SNPRM indicate that DOJ is considering many of the issues that Title III businesses have been forced to grapple with on their own in the face of the recent wave of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits commenced on behalf of private plaintiffs and advocacy groups.  It would be a positive development for any eventual government regulations to clearly speak to these issues.  Conversely, it may be even longer before we see final regulations for Title III entities. …

While most current settlement agreements regarding website accessibility focus on desktop websites, many businesses are anticipating that the next target for plaintiffs and advocacy groups will be their mobile websites and applications.  Such concern is well founded as recent DOJ settlement agreements addressing accessible technology have included modifications to both desktop websites and mobile applications.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “Recent Decisions Reinforce That Accessible Technology Claims Are Not Going Away.”

Following is an excerpt:

As businesses continue to compete to provide customers and guests with more attractive services and amenities, we have seen increased utilization of technology to provide those enhanced experiences.  However, in adopting and increasingly relying on new technologies such as websites, mobile applications, and touchscreen technology (e.g., point of sale devices, beverage dispensers, check-in kiosks) accessibility is often overlooked because of the lack of specific federal standards in most contexts. The two recent decisions discussed below – one in New York and the other in California – do just that.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein has a Retail Labor and Employment Law Blog post that will be of interest to many of our technology industry readers: “Defending Against Website Accessibility Claims: Recent Decisions Suggest the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Is Unlikely to Serve As Businesses’ Silver Bullet.”

Following is an excerpt:

For businesses hoping to identify an avenue to quickly and definitively defeat the recent deluge of website accessibility claims brought by industrious plaintiff’s firms, advocacy groups, and government regulators in the initial stages of litigation, recent news out of the District of Massachusetts – rejecting technical/jurisdictional arguments raised by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – provides the latest roadblock. …

These recent decisions reveal a reluctance among the courts to dismiss website accessibility actions on technical/jurisdictional grounds.  Taken along with the expanding number of jurisdictions who subscribe to legal theories accepting that Title III covers website accessibility (whether adopting a nexus theory or broadly interpreting the spirit and purpose of the ADA) and it is becoming increasingly clear that many businesses will have a difficult time ridding themselves of website accessibility claims in the early stages of litigation.  Of course, these decisions have been quick to note they do not foreclose a variety of potentially successful defenses that may be asserted later in the litigation – e.g., undue burden, fundamental alteration, and the provision of equivalent/alternative means of access.  While, to date, the existing website accessibility case law has not focused on when these defenses might prevail, with the recent proliferation of website accessibility demand letters and litigation, businesses should soon find themselves with greater guidance from the courts.  In the interim, the best way to guard against potential website accessibility claims continues to be to take prophylactic measures to address compliance before you receive a demand letter, complaint, or notice of investigation.

Read the full post here.

My colleague Joshua A. Stein at Epstein Becker Green has a Hospitality Labor and Employment Law blog post that will be of interest to many of our readers: “DOJ Further Delays Release of Highly Anticipated Proposed Website Accessibility Regulations for Public Accommodations.”

Following is an excerpt:

For those who have been eagerly anticipating the release of the U.S. Department of Justice’s proposed website accessibility regulations for public keyboard-4x3_jpgaccommodations under Title III of the ADA (the “Public Accommodation Website Regulations”), the wait just got even longer.  The recently released Spring 2015 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions reveals that DOJ’s Public Accommodation Website Regulations are now not expected until April 2016.  This delay moves back the release date nearly a year from what most had previously anticipated; this summer in advance of July’s 25th Anniversary of the ADA.  While there was no public statement explaining the release, most insiders believe it has to do with the difficulty of appropriately quantifying the costs and benefits of complying with any promulgated regulations – a necessary step by DOJ for such a rulemaking.

Read the full original post here.

Epstein Becker Green will host a complimentary webinar, “Hi-Tech Compliance in the Digital Age” on June 25th from 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. (EDT) presented by Epstein Becker Green attorneys Michelle Capezza, Nathaniel M. Glasser, Adam C. Solander, and Joshua A. Stein.

Below is a description of the webinar:

All employers face unique challenges in having to comply with both overarching and targeted labor and employment, employee benefits, and civil rights laws and regulations that greatly impact their workplace and business model.  As employers — including those operating in the technology, media, and telecommunications industry — you need to understand the rapidly evolving developments in federal and state laws and regulations and determine whether they require you to take actions today to minimize your company’s legal exposure.

Join our experienced panelists as they review critical hi-tech issues that should be at the top of your workplace compliance list.

Topics will include:

  • Privacy and Security Questions When Dealing with Employees
  • Fiduciary Responsibilities in Connection with Plan Participant Data
  • Website Accessibility

To register for this complimentary webinar, please click here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein authored Epstein Becker Green’s recent issue of its Take 5 newsletter.   In this special edition, Josh focuses on the 25thAnniversary of the ADA and recent developments and future trends under Title III of the ADA. 

  1. Website Accessibility
  2. Accessible Point-of-Sale Devices and Other Touchscreen Technology
  3. Movie Theater Captioning & Audio (Narrative) Description
  4. The Availability of Sign Language Interpreters at Health Care Facilities
  5. “Drive By” Design/Construction Lawsuits

Read the full newsletter here.