Digital Accessibility for Local Government Agency Websites

Websites, mobile applications, and other digital tools offer exciting opportunities for local government agencies to achieve unprecedented reach and access to services across communities. At the same time, these tools also present novel challenges. 

Matters of accessibility are especially complex for agencies that incorporate digital technologies into their services. Tackling these questions with deliberation and care is crucial for achieving an agencys public service mission. 

In this article, we outline the framework governing accessibility of websites and related tools, like mobile apps, for local government agencies in California. This is a challenging area of the law with many nuances. We strongly recommend consulting with an attorney before launching new digital solutions or making significant changes to existing ones. As always, the attorneys at Jones & Mayer are here to help.

What does accessibility mean in the digital context?

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was a watershed moment for public awareness of accessibility concerns. When the ADA became law, Congress was chiefly focused on improving the lives of people with disabilities as they navigated physical spaces. The Internet was in its infancy and not on the policymaking radar. Today, of course, the Internet and its associated tools have become important spaces in their own right. 

Achieving accessibility to digital content requires an understanding of how various disabilities can influence the way an individual interacts with computers and other devices. For example:

  • Individuals with visual impairment may navigate the web using screen readers, which convert on-screen text to voice or Braille, and may rely on alternative text embedded in images to describe what is on the screen. 
  • Individuals with hearing impairment may rely on subtitles to follow audio content. 
  • Someone who is colorblind may not be able to see important information in a color-coded graphic. 
  • An individual with a physical impairment may not be able to use a mouse or other “clickable” device.

The examples above are only a few of the disabilities public agencies must take into consideration as they design and implement digital platforms. Agencies typically work with specialists to develop a comprehensive understanding of the disabilities that may affect the publics interaction with a given digital platform. 

The framework governing public agency digital accessibility

Matters of accessibility lie at the intersection of law, technology, and the day-to-day challenges people with disabilities face. Although the legal requirements for accessibility are important to understand, much of the challenge of achieving accessibility comes in the practical process of implementing solutions in an agencys content.

These are the key sources of law and guidance around matters of accessibility for public agency digital platforms:

  • Title II of the ADA

Under the ADA, public agencies are prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability with respect to the accessibility or usability of an agencys facilities, or participation by such individuals in the agencys services, programs, or activities. A narrow exception applies in circumstances in which creating accessibility would result in a fundamental alternation in the nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.” Decisions about when the undue burden” exception applies must be made at the highest level of an agency, and must be documented with care.

Remedies for suits filed under the ADA typically include injunctive relief—an order requiring the defendant agency to bring its platform into full compliance—as well as attorneys fees and costs. Title II plaintiffs can also pursue compensatory damages. 

  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by federal agencies and any state or local programs that receive federal financial assistance. Section 508 of the law and its associated regulations, which can be accessed here, impose accessibility requirements upon qualified public agencies. Failure to comply can result in financial penalties.

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a detailed collection of principles for organizations of all kinds to follow in designing and implementing electronic content. The WCAG is developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative, or W3C, a nongovernmental organization. Rulemaking and judicial interpretation of the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other legal frameworks generally defer to, and in some cases explicitly adopt, the standards set forth in WCAG 2.0 as an objective measure of a websites accessibility. 

WCAG 2.0 provides clear criteria for evaluating the accessibility of a platforms features. WCAG begins from four broad principles:

    • Content must be perceivable, taking into consideration variability in visual and auditory capabilities.
    • Content must be operable, including navigability by individuals who cannot operate peripheral devices such as mice.
    • Content must be understandable, which oftentimes requires presenting information in several different ways (e.g., a photo must also have a text description).
    • Content must be robust, which includes interoperability with assistive devices. 
  • California’s AB 434

California Assembly Bill No. 434 (AB 434) became effective on January 1, 2018. The law mandates compliance with WCAG 2.0 by state agency websites and also created a compliance certification process. For now, the rules of AB 434 do not apply to local governments. Some jurisdictions are nevertheless following the process established by AB 434 as a prepackaged framework for achieving ADA compliance, in part in anticipation that in the future the state may adopt similar rules for local government to follow.

Building compliant platforms

Accessibility is a top priority of local governments first and foremost because it ensures broad participation by the entire community, regardless of disability. Preserving public funds from litigation risk simply provides further incentive for achieving compliance in a timely and thorough way.

In practice, WCAG 2.0 provides a robust framework for public agencies to follow as they develop new digital content. Achieving full compliance can require significant effort and technical know-how. In many cases a budget-minded agency will be faced with tradeoffs: simpler content may be preferable to complex designs that raise numerous accessibility challenges.

The U.S. Department of Justice provides a guide for local governments on its website, accessible by clicking here.

For decades, Jones & Mayer has worked closely with local governmental agencies to find sustainable solutions to challenges such as ADA compliance.