More than 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect, federal officials are imposing first-ever rules clarifying how the law applies online.

The U.S. Department of Justice said this month that it will finalize a rule outlining technical standards for websites and mobile apps under Title II of the ADA.

The regulation applies to online offerings from state and local governments, which can include everything from public transportation and voter registration to emergency services, schools, health care providers and tax authorities.

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“This final rule marks the Justice Department’s latest effort to ensure that no person is denied access to government services, programs or activities because of a disability,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “By issuing clear and consistent accessibility standards for state and local governments’ digital content, this rule advances the ADA’s promise of equal participation in society for people with disabilities.”

Many websites remain inaccessible to people with disabilities and the Justice Department has faced pressure for years to issue regulations specifying how the ADA applies online. Until now, however, the agency has only offered guidance. That has left the space wide open to litigation as more and more facets of life have shifted online, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So much of life today takes place on the web and on apps — it is a modern public square,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “This rule is a long-awaited recognition that to achieve equal participation in society, as promised by the Americans with Disabilities Act, we must address digital discrimination and inaccessibility.”

The Justice Department rule stipulates that web and mobile apps should follow a standard known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, Version 2.1, Level AA to address accessibility for those relying on screen readers, speech recognition software, captioning for videos, visual contrast and more.

The requirements apply even if a third-party creates or updates a web page or mobile app for a government entity, officials said, though some content ——primarily archived and certain preexisting information — will be exempt.

“It is important that state and local governments can prioritize so they can choose the most important content — like current or commonly used information — to make accessible to people with disabilities quickly,” the Justice Department said.

The rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register soon and will take effect 60 days later. At that point, state and local governments will have two or three years to come into compliance with the regulations, depending on their population.

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