Digital Accessibility Reinforced by HHS’s Section 504 Final Ruling

Digital Accessibility Reinforced by HHS’s Section 504 Final Ruling

Published: May 30, 2024

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    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recently introduced a transformative final rule under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The passing of this rule has thus significantly bolstered accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

    The regulation’s main goal is to enforce stringent measures to prevent disability-based discrimination in all HHS-funded programs and activities across the United States.

    Accordingly, the Rule mandates that all HHS-funded programs and activities adopt advanced technological standards. This is to ensure that digital platforms, including mobile apps and web content, are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

    Moreover, by extending these accessibility requirements, especially to kiosk-based services, the rule ensures usability and accessibility for all individuals. These comprehensive measures promote inclusivity and guarantee equal access to essential services and information.

    They underscore the federal government’s unwavering commitment to eliminating discrimination and enhancing accessibility for everyone.

    The HHS is a federal agency constantly working on protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services. Their emphasis especially lies on protecting and facilitating for those least able to help themselves.

    Web compliance is however something that needs time, expertise, and continuous updating. It’s why we at ADA Site Compliance, are dedicated to helping organizations like yours ensure your digital content meets accessibility requirements.

    The Standards of Technology

    In alignment with the new Rule, the HHS mandates organizations ensure all their web content adheres to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1.

    The guidelines ensure digital accessibility to make web and mobile applications perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for users with disabilities. They include implementing success criteria that involve:

    • Using text alternatives for users with visual impairments to read non-text content
    • Providing keyboard accessibility for those with cognitive disorders
    • Maintaining optimal contrast ratio between text and background for visually challenged users.

    Organizations can alternatively ensure web compliance as per WCAG 2.2. They also have the option to employ different methods to achieve accessibility. The only requirement is that they provide equivalent or superior accessibility and usability compared to WCAG 2.1, Level A, and Level AA.

    Organizations can leverage the latest advancements and practices in accessible technology.

    Alignment with ADA Title II Standards

    The HHS regulation closely aligns with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) latest digital accessibility regulations to implement Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    According to the ADA Title II Rule, state and local government entities must ensure web and mobile content accessibility to users with disabilities. It provides detailed digital accessibility guidelines as per the WCAG, emphasizing public institutions adopting accessible design principles.

    With the alignment of these two rules, HHS ensures a consistent and unified approach to digital accessibility. The main intention of the HHS is to maintain compliance across all federally funded programs and state and local government services.

    Potential Impact and Benefits

    Digital accessibility standards as per the Section 504 Rule mark a significant advancement in the rights of individuals with disabilities. It acknowledges that digital platforms must provide equal access to all users to essential services like health, education, and welfare.

    By ensuring web compliance, HHS removes barriers that would have previously prevented the complete participation of individuals with disabilities in these vital areas.

    Providing Accessibility for Third Party Content and Applications

    The rule also requires the web compliance of an organization’s third-party mobile applications and web content. Accordingly, any digital content or applications made available to an organization through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements must comply with the organization’s rigorous web compliance standards.

    So these institutions must ensure their contracts with third parties for designing websites and applications reflect the standards for digital accessibility. This involves incorporating clauses that mandate conformity to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, Levels A and AA. Or clauses mandating conformity with any alternative standard offering comparable or superior accessibility.

    Organizations thus ensure all provided third-party digital products and services meet the necessary accessibility standards.

    Similarly, entities like web designers and app developers supplying digital deliverables must ensure their products comply with these standards. This compliance meets the HHS Rule legal requirements and aligns with best practices for creating inclusive digital environments.

    Organizations should preferably work at integrating accessibility features from the start of the design process. They will in the process ensure all their visitors and users can efficiently interact with all of their digital content.

    Broader Implications Third-Party Compliance for Web Accessibility

    The broader implications of enhancing web accessibility highlight the importance of following a comprehensive approach. Here all stakeholders involved in creating and distributing digital content share the responsibility of ensuring accessibility.

    This collaborative effort helps eliminate barriers and provides a seamless user experience for individuals with disabilities. To continuously improve accessibility features and maintain compliance, organizations must adopt proactive measures like:

    • Regular accessibility audits
    • Developer training on accessibility standards
    • Incorporating user feedback
    • Using tools and software that automatically check for accessibility issues.

    The Role of Third-Party Vendors

    Third-party vendors play a crucial role in meeting web accessibility requirements. By staying updated with the latest accessibility guidelines and best practices, they can deliver compliant digital solutions.

    They work closely with their clients to understand specific accessibility needs and ensure fully compliant deliverables with the stipulated standards.

    Moreover, they should offer comprehensive documentation and support to help recipients maintain accessibility standards over time. This includes:

    • Maintaining guidelines for updating content
    • Troubleshooting accessibility issues
    • Implementing ongoing improvements based on user feedback and updates

    Exemptions to the Digital Accessibility Requirements

    There are a few exemptions to digital accessibility requirements as per the new Rule:

    • Archived Web Content: Archived digital content is no longer actively maintained by the website’s administrators.
    • Pre-Existing Conventional Electronic Documents: Documents created in electronic formats before the Rule’s implementation.
    • Third-Party Content: Public or external party posts and content.
    • Individual Password-Protected Documents: Password-protected documents that were intended for specific individuals.
    • Preexisting Social Media Posts: Social media content created before the Rule existed.

    Despite these exemptions, the Department of Health and Human Services stresses that recipients make some items accessible under other Section 504 obligations.

    This includes ensuring users with disabilities can access and effectively understand some exemptions.

    Providing Accessibility for Self-Service Kiosks

    The new HHS Rule addresses the accessibility of programs and activities delivered through self-service kiosks. This is not explicitly covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II Rule.

    The Rule does not specifically require that kiosks be accessible. It however emphasizes the importance of ensuring programs offered via kiosks are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

    Overcoming Potential Barriers

    HHS recognizes that non-compliant kiosks can prevent users with disabilities from accessing necessary programs and activities.

    The Rule thus requires recipients to ensure that even programs delivered through kiosks remain accessible. This is possible through alternative work-around methods designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

    For example, they can allow people with disabilities to directly approach staff to register for services typically accessed through kiosks. However, these work-around procedures must offer the accessibility, convenience, and confidentiality of a kiosk system.

    Another example is to ensure individuals with disabilities do not have to wait longer or go through additional steps to receive the same services.

    Moreover, the workaround procedures must ensure that the provided information and service remain confidential. Individuals with disabilities are thus not disadvantaged compared to kiosk users.

    Enhancing Accessibility and Inclusion

    By addressing kiosk accessibility, the Rule highlights the need to maintain an inclusive design in all aspects of program delivery. Recipients thus need to consider accessibility when deploying kiosks.

    This can include using kiosks equipped with accessibility features like:

    • Audio guidance
    • Adjustable height
    • Touchscreen interfaces that are operable without fine motor skills.

    By thoughtfully implementing work-around methods and inclusive design principles, organizations can ensure:

    • Equal access
    • Convenience
    • Confidentiality for all users.

    This will in the process help promote a more inclusive and accessible environment.

    The Timeline for Compliance

    As per the new Rule, the organization size determines the timeframe for the web compliance of all digital properties. Accordingly:

    • Small organizations with fewer than 15 employees, must achieve compliance by May 2026.
    • Larger organizations with 15 or more employees have a compliance deadline of May 2027.

    This timeline ensures that all companies and organizations, no matter the size, have a clear and defined deadline to become web-compliant.

    Conclusion

    As a result of the new Rule and its numerous requirements, all organizations must thoroughly evaluate and reassess their accessibility procedures.

    Ensuring compliance involves more than upgrading products, services, and digital properties. It also revolves around establishing appropriate contractual relationships with vendors providing digital deliverables.

    Additionally, programs and events utilizing kiosks must have workaround processes to ensure equal access, convenience, and confidentiality for individuals with disabilities.

    At ADA Site Compliance, our team of accessibility specialists stays continuously updated with the latest regulatory trends. We strive to help organizations like yours ensure that all digital content meets accessibility requirements. We can ensure your organization is fully compliant and inclusive for all users.

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