Skip to content

Schatz leads push for ADA rights with internet

While digital equity activists have focused much attention in recent years to bridging the economic divide that prevents lower-income Americans from accessing the internet and availing themselves of the increasing number of online-only services essential for daily life, less attention has been paid to the digital divide that keeps people with disabilities from accessing these same services.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, led a group of 12 Senate colleagues in calling on the Department of Justice to ensure that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to internet access and use.

The senators asked the DOJ to restart a rule-making process under the ADA to establish new protections specific to the internet for those with disabilities.

“The United States has invested billions of dollars to develop technology and provide connectivity to all parts of the country, but it is of little value to the Americans who are unable to access the online services that the rest of us so heavily rely on,” the senators wrote in a letter to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the internet and digital technologies were at a nascent stage. More than 30 years later, these technologies are now ubiquitous and we rely on them for daily activities — such as communicating with friends and family, conducting business, accessing government resources, and obtaining health care. New rules are necessary so that individuals with disabilities are provided equal access to the digital world.”

Schatz was joined by U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Bob Casey, D-Penn.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The letter cited a study analyzing the top 1 million most-visited websites that found the overwhelming majority of these websites were inaccessible in some way to people with disabilities. More than 4,000 cases were filed in federal and state courts referencing ADA compliance last year, but their outcomes remain uncertain without DOJ regulations.

The senators acknowledged the DOJ’s stated support on the issue and a recently published set of guidelines regarding web accessibility and the ADA but said that without established rules, courts will continue to have differing interpretations of how and when the ADA should apply to the internet.

The proposed rule-making process started by the Obama administration in 2010 but was not completed. The Trump administration subsequently withdrew the proposal.