An agency from Oklahoma entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice on an inaccessible mobile app. This action was in response to the agency’s mobile app, which was reportedly not accessible to individuals with disabilities.
This case is part of a larger trend where the Department of Justice has been actively enforcing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And particularly about a website and digital accessibility.
Read on to learn more about the DOJ’s commitment to ensuring digital accessibility for all individuals, especially those with disabilities.
Significant Increase in Number of Lawsuits:
In 2022, there were a record number of lawsuits filed regarding website accessibility. Most of these lawsuits were filed in states like New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and California.
New York saw the highest number, 2,560 in 2022 alone, more likely due to its courts being more favorable to plaintiffs. This is especially true in cases involving online-only businesses.
Florida, Pennsylvania, and California follow with California seeing fewer cases. It’s probably due to its courts’ stance that the ADA does not cover online-only businesses.
With this increase, there has also been a significant increase in the number of actions taken by the DOJ against both private and public entities.
It’s against entities failing to adhere to ADA standards in their digital offerings. The enforcement has ranged across various sectors and includes multiple organizations.
It was under the Biden administration the DOJ stepped up enforcement of ADA compliance for websites. This included high-profile investigations and settlements with organizations for alleged ADA violations on their websites.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is responsible for overseeing ADA enforcement, including complaints related to website and mobile app accessibility.
How it all started
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), governmental bodies must ensure their online services are accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities.
Oklahoma is one of the states prompted to upgrade its digital services to be both accessible and fair. This was especially considering the advent and integration of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). This move is part of a broader mandate for inclusivity in the digital realm, where emerging tech plays a pivotal role.
Americans with Disabilities Act- Where it fits in
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a vital federal law ensuring non-discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public life. It is similar to civil rights protections based on race, sex, and other criteria.
It sets out clear guidelines to ensure people with disabilities receive equal benefits from government programs and activities. It also encompasses various sectors, including, employment and state and local government services.
Under the ADA, state and local government entities must provide equal access to all their services and programs to people with disabilities.
This covers a wide range of activities from public education to emergency services, irrespective of the size of the government entity or its federal funding status.
Ensuring Digital Accessibility: DOJ’s Settlement with Service Oklahoma
The U.S. Department of Justice recently settled with Service Oklahoma, an agency responsible for state digital services. This agreement was based on the Justice Department’s findings that Service Oklahoma violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, had emphasized that public services offered via mobile apps must be accessible to individuals with disabilities, in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
She highlighted the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring that state and local governments, as they increasingly rely on mobile apps for essential public services, uphold the ADA’s standards of equal access for people with disabilities.
Following a complaint, the Department of Justice investigated the OK Mobile ID App, initially managed by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.
The complaint was that the individual experienced difficulties in using the app. The difficulties were particularly with tasks like photographing an ID and taking a selfie through specific head and eye movements.
This app offers digital state IDs, and investigations revealed it posed potential accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities. It was because the Public Safety Department did not address these accessibility issues that the user filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.
This led to an investigation that revealed that the app was non-compliant with ADA standards. And most importantly, it particularly affected those with vision disabilities.
The DOJ’s findings from this investigation were compiled and presented in a letter to Service Oklahoma in November. To address this, Service Oklahoma has to make the app accessible, following standards like WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
The remedial measures include:
- Ongoing compliance monitoring
- Seeking public feedback on accessibility
- An explicit non-discrimination policy
- Appointing an ADA Coordinator
- Providing ADA training on accessibility to its employees
- Submitting regular reports to the Department of Justice.
The DOJ emphasizes cooperative resolution but reserves the right to enforce ADA compliance if necessary. And this settlement is a part of the Civil Rights Division’s broader Tech Equity Initiative. This initiative aims to address disability discrimination in technology.
Ripple effects across other states
This case reflects a growing recognition and response to digital accessibility needs in public services across various states. For instance, Maryland and Massachusetts have recently mandated their agencies to ensure digital spaces are accessible. This underscores the importance of adhering to accessibility standards in government digital services.
Maryland’s Governor Wes Moore recently signed an executive order to strategically integrate AI in state government, aligning with principles and accountability.
This initiative, led by Information Technology Secretary Katie Olson Savage, aims to ethically incorporate AI in state operations. It is to enhance sectors like workforce and economic development and bolster cybersecurity.
Additional initiatives accompany the order. They include forming the Maryland Digital Service to improve digital platforms and a Cybersecurity Task Force to address cyber threats.
These efforts represent Maryland’s proactive approach to adapting to the evolving digital and AI landscape.
Governor Maura Healey of Massachusetts has issued an executive order to form the Digital Accessibility and Equity Governance Board. This enhances the accessibility of state digital services for people with disabilities.
This initiative, coinciding with the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also includes appointing a Chief IT Accessibility Officer. The board will ensure that state websites and applications are accessible and user-friendly, aligning with federal efforts to improve digital accessibility in government services.
The board, including people with disabilities, experts, and various stakeholders, will meet regularly. They will oversee the implementation and maintenance of accessibility standards, ensuring an inclusive approach to digital service design in Massachusetts.
In Pennsylvania, a new website marked a notable advancement in digital healthcare services. It was developed jointly by the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience (CODE PA) and the Department of Insurance, and designed with a strong focus on accessibility.
This development as highlighted in an interview with officials from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience, underscores the state’s commitment to inclusive digital infrastructure.
The website, which enables residents to appeal health plan service denials, has been recognized for its high level of accessibility. It scores an impressive 98% in a state evaluation. This achievement reflects Pennsylvania’s dedication to ensuring digital tools are accessible to all its residents.
Only Fifteen States With Statewide Digital Accessibility Coordinators
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) has released a report. The report indicates that only 15 states currently have statewide digital accessibility coordinators.
Digital accessibility coordinators ensure that digital government services are accessible. The need is even more especially given the rising number of Americans with disabilities and the increased demand for digital services.
The report advocates creating more such positions to audit and improve state digital platforms. It emphasizes that making services accessible benefits everyone.
The report also notes that funding is a vital challenge for states wanting to establish these roles. NASCIO’s findings suggest a need for broader policy review and community engagement to enhance digital accessibility in state governments.
Other Recent Notable DOJ Actions and Settlements
Here are a few other DOJ actions and settlements made in recent years worth mentioning:
1. Hy-Vee, Inc. Settlement (Dec 2021):
In December 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a settlement with Hy-Vee, Inc. over alleged violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This settlement was relative to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine portal, which was reportedly not fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Title III of the ADA requires that public accommodations, including businesses like Hy-Vee, ensure their goods, services, and facilities are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The issue with Hy-Vee’s vaccine portal was particularly significant. This was considering the crucial nature of access to COVID-19 vaccine information and scheduling during the pandemic.
As part of the settlement, Hy-Vee had to undertake specific actions to bring its vaccine portal into compliance with ADA standards. This likely included making technical adjustments to the website to ensure it was navigable and usable by individuals with various disabilities.
This applies to those who rely on screen readers or other assistive technologies.
The goal was to ensure that people with disabilities had equal access to the vaccine portal. This, in turn, ensured that they could independently access information about vaccines, book appointments, and utilize other site features.
This settlement underscored the importance of digital accessibility in public health initiatives. It also underscored businesses’ legal obligations to ensure all customers, including those with disabilities, could access their digital resources.
2. Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) Settlement (Dec 2021):
In December 2021, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) reached a settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding alleged violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The DOJ’s action focused on ensuring that MTD’s website and mobile application were accessible to individuals with disabilities. As part of the settlement, MTD had to bring its digital platforms into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA.
This standard provides guidelines to make web content more accessible to people with various disabilities. These disabilities include visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities.
The settlement emphasized the importance of digital accessibility in public transportation services, ensuring equal access to all users.
3. Agreements with New York State and Local Agencies (Oct 2021):
In October 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced agreements with New York State and local agencies to make accessibility improvements on their COVID-19 vaccination websites.
This action was part of the DOJ’s efforts to ensure that vital public health information and services, particularly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, were fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The agreements likely involved updating the websites to comply with recognized accessibility standards. These included the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), to ensure that all individuals could access critical vaccination information and services.
In conclusion, the DOJ’s enforcement of ADA compliance in digital spaces, through the WCAG 2.1 Level AA standard, highlights a growing trend toward ensuring web accessibility.
The extent of ADA website accessibility issues may be greater than court cases. However, this may be due to many starting as demand letters, where settlements often necessitate WCAG compliance.
This trend varies by state and industry, with some like New York extending ADA coverage to online-only businesses, unlike California. Notably, the Oklahoma case exemplifies these efforts, underscoring the importance of digital inclusivity.
Additionally, ADA violations can lead to significant civil penalties, emphasizing the need for continual and complete compliance in this evolving legal landscape.
Contact ADA Site Compliance today for all your website accessibility needs.
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The ADA prohibits any private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, referred to as “public accommodations,” from discriminating against those with disabilities. Federal courts have ruled that the ADA includes websites in the definition of public accommodation. As such, websites must offer auxiliary aids and services to low-vision, hearing-impaired, and physically disabled persons, in the same way a business facility must offer wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and sign language interpreters, among other forms of assistance.
All websites must be properly coded for use by electronic screen readers that read aloud to sight-impaired users the visual elements of a webpage. Additionally, all live and pre-recorded audio content must have synchronous captioning for hearing-impaired users.
Websites must accommodate hundreds of keyboard combinations, such as Ctrl + P to print, that people with disabilities depend on to navigate the Internet.
Litigation continues to increase substantially. All business and governmental entities are potential targets for lawsuits and demand letters. Recent actions by the Department of Justice targeting businesses with inaccessible websites will likely create a dramatic increase of litigation risk.
Big box retailer Target Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million – plus $3.7 million more in legal costs – to settle a landmark class action suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Other recent defendants in these cases have included McDonald’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Netflix, Harvard University, Foot Locker, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with these large companies, thousands of small businesses have been subject to ADA website litigation.
Defendants in ADA lawsuits typically pay plaintiff's legal fees, their own legal fees for defending the litigation, and potential additional costs. In all, the average cost can range from tens of thousands of dollars, to above six figures. There are also high intangible costs, such as added stress, time and human capital, as well as reputational damage. Furthermore, if the remediation is incomplete, copycat suits and serial filers can follow, meaning double or triple the outlay. It's vital to implement a long-term strategy for ensuring your website is accessible and legally compliant.