Will this be the year?

The end of February the field heard that the Access Board submitted a proposed rule to update the Section 508 technical standard. Many of us in the field have been waiting for this and other actions on the accessibility front for some time.  As we head into the CSUN Technology and Disability Conference, it got me thinking; “will this be the year”? We know that the battle for digital equity will be won in part with an equal measure of awareness of the problem and regulation to support it.

Right now in the U.S., there are a number of regulations just on the horizon that could positively affect digital accessibility; the field has been waiting a very long time for these legislative gems. They would bring with them both opportunities for broad awareness, and include the rule of law. These include (1) a refresh to the Section 508 standards, (2) the clarification of ADA with respect to web accessibility, and (3) other pieces of legislation where accessibility language could have a large, positive, impact.  Each is briefly described below:

Section 508 refresh

How many of us would have imagined that the Section 508 refresh would have taken so long? The process began with the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) established in 2006. I was thrilled when NCDAE was invited to be a member of TEITAC and represent education entities in this process. The recommendations from that group were given to the Access Board in April of 2008; yes, that would be nearly 6 years ago.

Just a few weeks ago (February 23rd), the Access Board submitted their report to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who has 90 days to clear it, or take issue with its contents. Once it clears the OMB hurdle, it will be posted for public comment and replies to comments under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) process for another prescribed period of time; this is typically another 90 days.

That means that it is possible that the earliest we would see the refresh is in about six to 8 months; which would mean the new standards could be out IN 2014. Although it is more likely that it will take longer.  Sadly, it also means that the time from the beginning of the refresh to rule would be at least a decade – or more if not finalized this year.  It feels that over the past 5 or so years, we have been hearing rumors that the refreshed standards will be out for comment in (today’s date + 4 months).  Chasing the rainbow for that pot-‘O-gold has been a tiring process for many.

ADA clarification

Another highly anticipated action by the federal government is their intent to clarify the “Accessibility of Web Information and Services Provided by Entities Covered by the ADA”.  The Department of Justice began this process in 2010 through an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM).  They sought public comment on their desire to revise ADA regulation to “…establish specific requirements for State and local governments and public accommodations to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities”. This would both codify the expectation of accessibility for covered entities engaged in covered services, and also provide the standard by which this could be accomplished (hmmmm, might it be the Section 508 standards?). The hope is that the ADA clarification would end confusion, and reduce litigation on the issue of web accessibility.

The ANPRM comment period was closed in January of 2011. After quite a long silence, and an extended period of speculation by many of us –yes, WebAIM/NCDAE included–, the field was energized by hearing that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) would be published in July of 2013.  July came and went, as did the newly published dates of November 2013, and December 2013. After this time, the DOJ went silent on when we might see the NPRM.  Of course once it is published there will be a period of public comment, typically 60 days, and another period, typically 30 days, for reply comments. Then the Department will be in a position to deliver the report and order, which effectively promulgates the new rule. So could this also happen in 2014?  The math is certainly aligned, but the reality is anyone’s guess.

Other legislation

There are other pieces of legislation that are new or in the midst of a reauthorization. One example is the newly proposed Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act. The field owes Wisconsin representative Tom Petri a great debt for introducing the bill (H.R. 3505). It would strengthen and clarify requirements for digital materials to be accessible to students with disabilities. Sadly, only about 11% of bills ever leave the committee to which it was assigned (House Education & the Workforce Committee), so it may never make it to a vote of Congress.  No matter the result of this Act, it may show the beginning of legislative attempts to solve a major problem in higher education today.

Another is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) itself.  Congress has begun this work, and there is speculation that accessibility may be included. This is because feedback is going into both the House and Senate Committees (e.g., some provided by NCDAE).  Both the House “Education & the Workforce Committee” and Senate “Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee” have scheduled hearings on reauthorizing HEA and have already included hearings around some disability issues. Many disability communities are holding discussions on what should be included, and deciding the best ways to advocate during the process.  The HEA also includes regulation surrounding the accreditation communities; could this be the time the accreditors get involved in a substantive way?

If you would like to add your opinions to either the Teach Act or the HEA reauthorization, please contact members of those Congressional Committees. Of course it is more powerful if you live in the district of the committee member (i.e., either from the House or Senate).  Could this be the year that legislative language is put in place to help postsecondary accessibility efforts?  Might it forever clarify that after-the-fact accommodations should not be the frontline approach in providing access to all students?   We will wait and see.

No matter the exact timeline, those in the field are on pins and needles.  A cluster of potent high-profile federal regulation could just be the ticket. Will this be the year?  We will all stay tuned, crossing fingers and toes.

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