Canada’s first national accessibility law is now in force. The United States still awaits theirs. The Accessible Canada Act, Bill C-81, was passed unanimously through the Canadian Parliament in June 2019.
The law aims to proactively identify remove, and prevent barriers to accessibility in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction, including banking, interprovincial transportation and telecommunications.
Under the act, these and other organizations will be required to create accessibility plans that include a means to receive and respond to public feedback. These organizations must also regularly publish progress reports on the implementation of their plans and their response to any feedback they may get.
One of the new gate-keeper organizations created, the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization, is tasked with creating new accessibility standards. The board of directors of this group includes a majority of persons with disabilities. Canada has committed to being barrier-free by 2040. The United States is nowhere near even attempting to achieve that goal.
The next step in the process for Canada will be creating and implementing standards and regulations to provide clear guidance on accessibility requirements so organizations and businesses can achieve and maintain compliance.
Most countries including the U.S. do provide laws protecting the civil rights of disabled persons for homes, parks, businesses, and educational facilities. What is not universal is website accessibility, because the law has not kept up with technology.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability. Its purpose is to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities for employment, access to state and local government services, places of public accommodation, transportation, and more.
At this time there are no enforceable ADA legal standards to follow for website accessibility in the private sector. This leaves lots of opportunities for litigation and lawsuits regarding digital accessibility, and cases before the courts are increasing at an alarming rate. The United States refers to non-government-related websites as public sector entities, allowing the legal system to hear cases brought by persons with disabilities who find themselves unable to use a public-facing business website.
Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government entities and it protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on disability in services, programs, and activities provided by state and local government entities. Section 508 web accessibility falls under Title II.
Title III prohibits discrimination based on disability in the activities of places of public accommodations. These are businesses that are generally open to the public including schools, recreation, offices, and medical buildings. E-commerce websites and public mobile applications fall under Title III, Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities. Unfortunately, it has not yet been updated to include websites and online applications.
Even though there are accessibility standards and accepted guidelines to follow, companies are not legally bound to apply them in the United States. However, increasingly expensive lawsuits are compelling many organizations to follow published guidelines anyway.
The gap between government and public website accessibility laws and standards is very confusing for companies that conduct online business with entities that fall under Title II regulations, such as the government and schools with websites, and even private entities such as universities that accept federal financial aid. Hopefully, the United States government will be pressured into taking a legal position shortly.