Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa

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Grassley, Senators Seek Updates & Further Action on Justice Department Efforts to Clarify Website Accessibility Under ADA

Jul 30, 2019
WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr seeking updates on the Justice Department’s efforts to clarify whether and how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites. Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) also joined the letter. The members sent a previous letter to the Department in 2018 urging it to help resolve regulatory uncertainty.
 
Following up on the 2018 letter, the senators urge the Justice Department to take actions, such as intervening in pending litigation, to clarify the law with regard to website accessibility. Further guidance from the Department will encourage businesses to make investments to better serve the needs of the disabled community. It will also stem the tide of abusive litigation that lines the pockets of trial lawyers but does nothing to advance accessibility for the disabled.
 
“We therefore urge the Department to provide further clarity, especially given that the issue of whether the ADA applies to private websites at all—or the scope of such application—continues to be subject to conflicting judicial opinions,” the senators wrote. “Absent further guidance, compliance will remain a matter of increasing litigation and inconsistent outcomes. Regulation through litigation should not be the standard.”
 
The ADA is a landmark civil rights law, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. For more than 25 years, the ADA has helped remove barriers to education, employment, transportation and access to public places and services. It has helped ensure that members of the disabled community have the same opportunities to participate in our society, pursue their education, and achieve their dreams.
 
The senators’ September 4, 2018, letter to DOJ is available here.  DOJ’s October 10, 2018, response is available here.
 
Full text of the July 30, 2019, letter follows:
 
July 30, 2019
 
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
 
The Honorable William P. Barr
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530
 
Dear Attorney General Barr:
 
Last year, we wrote to the Department of Justice urging it to help resolve regulatory uncertainty for those seeking to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with respect to their websites.[1] We write today seeking an update on the Department’s work in this area and to urge further action to promote greater clarity, compliance, and accessibility.   
 
In its October response to our letter, the Department reiterated its position that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites but did not indicate any concrete, further steps it intends to take to provide guidance on what that specifically means for those working to ensure website accessibility for customers with disabilities. Rather, the Department stated:
 
“[A]bsent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA's general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a specific voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”[2]
 
While this statement acknowledges flexibility in compliance, it does not clear up remaining uncertainty or even foreclose the possibility that compliance with a voluntary standard might not necessarily be viewed as compliance with the ADA. We therefore urge the Department to provide further clarity, especially given that the issue of whether the ADA applies to private websites at all—or the scope of such application—continues to be subject to conflicting judicial opinions. Absent further guidance, compliance will remain a matter of increasing litigation and inconsistent outcomes. Regulation through litigation should not be the standard.
 
As you may know, there are already provisions of federal law governing website accessibility that may be instructive. For example, rules issued under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which govern website accessibility for the federal government’s own websites, use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard (WCAG 2.0). Such rules also contain certain detailed exceptions so that strict compliance does not unduly burden federal agency resources. If the government benefits from such clear guidance in complying with a specific website accessibility standard, it seems only appropriate that the public should benefit from similar guidance or clarity.
 
Finally, we note that during your confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, you committed to “study[ing] this issue in greater detail and consult[ing] with [Congress] on these issues.”[3] Accordingly, we ask that you provide numbered, written answers to the following questions by no later than August 30, 2019:
 
  1. Since our letter of September 4, 2018, what specific steps has the Department taken to help resolve uncertainty regarding website accessibility requirements under the ADA? What additional steps does the Department intend to take, and by what date?
 
  1. Does the Department consider WCAG 2.0 an acceptable compliance standard for the public under Title III of the ADA? Why or why not?
 
  1. As with the regulations implementing Section 508, does the Department agree that consideration should be given to the resources available to a business or member of the public seeking to ensure website accessibility? Why or why not?
 
  1. Has the Department considered intervening in pending litigation to provide clarity on these issues, or to push back against any identified litigation abuses? Why or why not?
 
Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response.
 
Respectfully,
 
 
Charles E. Grassley                                                             Thom Tillis
United States Senator                                                          United States Senator
 
 
John Cornyn                                                                        Mike Crapo
United States Senator                                                         United States Senator
 
 
Joni K. Ernst                                                                        Marsha Blackburn
United States Senator                                                         United States Senator
 
 
M. Michael Rounds
United States Senator
 
 
cc:       The Honorable Jeffrey A. Rosen
Deputy Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
 
The Honorable Eric S. Dreiband
Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
 
-30-
 

[1] Letter from Senators Grassley, Rounds, Tillis, Crapo, Cornyn, and Ernst to the Honorable Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice (Sept. 4, 2018) available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2018-10-04%20Grassley,%20Rounds,%20Tillis,%20Crapo,%20Cornyn,%20Ernst%20to%20Justice%20Dept.%20-%20ADA%20Website%20Accessibility.pdf.
[2] Letter from Stephen E. Boyd, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, to Senator Grassley (Oct. 11, 2018).
[3] Responses to Questions for the Record, William P. Barr, Nominee to be United States Attorney General, 10 (Jan. 27, 2019) available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Barr%20Responses%20to%20QFRs.pdf.