The DOJ’s new accessibility rule: A crisis or opportunity for state and local governments?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently finalized a new rule that will have major implications for state and local governments across the country.

This new rule clarifies the obligations state and local governments have to make their websites and mobile applications accessible to people with disabilities. While this new rule is welcome news for advocates of digital accessibility, it will present major challenges for state and local governments, some of which must make extensive changes to existing websites and apps to be more accessible.

The new rule falls under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guarantees the rights of people with disabilities to access government services, programs, or activities. With many public benefits offered at least partially online, ensuring digital accessibility falls squarely within this requirement. However, the new rule includes some aggressive deadlines for enforcement, and disabilities can impact how people use technology in various ways. As a result, building inclusive digital products that work with assistive technologies can seem daunting.

Tips for improving website accessibility

Through our extensive work with federal agencies, we know how to navigate the challenges government agencies face in making their websites accessible. Our work includes efforts to support agencies like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs — both of whom have a particular interest in ensuring the accessibility of their digital offerings for the people they serve.

Some key lessons we’ve learned through this work include:

  • Get familiar with WCAG. The new rule directly ties ADA compliance to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is a technical document that sets minimum standards for web accessibility. But WCAG is also a roadmap for understanding user interactions in any digital experience and where those interactions can go wrong for people with disabilities and assistive technology users. You can learn more about the changes in the newest version of WCAG in this post from our blog.
  • Listen to people with disabilities. WCAG sets the minimums for compliance, but that doesn’t always guarantee a good experience for disabled users. Conducting user research with actual humans with disabilities helps catch potential problems that might technically pass standards. When formal user research isn’t possible, outreach to community-based disability advocacy groups can provide valuable informal feedback.
  • Embrace semantic HTML. As the language under the hood of every website, HTML has robust accessibility features built in. A web page thoughtfully coded with semantic HTML will be a better, more accessible experience than a downloadable PDF or Word document in almost every situation.
  • Ask vendors tough questions. In recent years, unscrupulous companies have begun selling automated “one line of code” products that promise to make a website ADA-compliant — products that don’t actually work. Likewise, some vendor-provided Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) offer an incomplete picture of their product. When reviewing proposals, state and local governments should expect detailed answers about WCAG conformance, findings from user research, and a vendor’s own assistive technology testing capabilities.

The new rule: an opportunity, not a crisis

State and local governments will learn these lessons as they come to grips with the requirements of the new DOJ rule. For some, the new rule represents a crisis — new mandates from the federal government with no additional resources or funding to help them come into compliance.

We think it’s better to look at this new rule as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make significant strides toward creating a better experience for people with disabilities. It also gives accessibility advocates within state and local governments the attention and resources they need to make this work a priority.

After years of work at the federal level, there are numerous resources that can be used to support this work at the state and local levels. Guidance from the federal Office of Management and Budget provides a template for an accessible digital-first government. Agencies like VA have mature testing procedures for ensuring new web applications are accessible. And we published the Accessibility Beyond Compliance Playbook not long ago, which provides strategies and techniques to enhance the accessibility of digital services. You can also see all of our posts about what we’ve learned about creating accessible services at the federal level.

The new DOJ rule has significant implications for state and local governments and for the people who use their digital services. By leveraging the work that has already been done at the federal level and following the guidance above, state and local governments have a unique opportunity to make their websites and digital services easier to use.

If your team has questions about creating accessible digital experiences, you can reach us at