Inequality and indifference

The recent decision by the Obama administration to delay issuing new regulations under the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is outrageous. The regulations would have provided guidance on how businesses can meet their legal obligation to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities. These regulations have been in the works for over five years, but the Obama administration now proposes further delaying them until 2018, effectively washing its hands of the matter. This move is particularly shocking in light of the president’s correct observation, made when he first announced his intention to issue the regulations in 2010, that such rules are “the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment.” The urgent need for these regulations has only increased, so why has the administration’s position inexplicably changed? 

Thanks to today’s technology, people with all kinds of disabilities can access computer information, including websites, with tools such as text-to-speech screen readers that verbalize what the computer is displaying, connected devices that can display the content in Braille, and alternative input devices for people who can’t physically use a mouse or keyboard. Despite this advanced technology, however, most of us, especially blind people like me, struggle every day to perform routine internet-based tasks, including paying our bills, examining electronic health records, and making hotel reservations. That’s because improperly designed websites can block our ability to effectively access all of the information. For example, if a website uses images to convey important information without also providing “alt tags” that a screen reader can read, then the screen reader will spit out gibberish because it can’t “read” a picture in the way it can read text. And the inability to access websites is not merely an inconvenience; it is a barrier to education and employment. For example, the college graduation rate for people with disabilities is just thirty-four percent; inaccessible online technology used by today’s colleges and universities undoubtedly contributes to this dismal statistic. 

ADVERTISEMENT
All of this is not due to hostility towards Americans with disabilities. While a few businesses simply refuse to provide equal access to their websites until a legal settlement or court order forces them to do so, many others simply don’t know where to turn for guidance on how to make their websites accessible. Organizations like the National Federation of the Blind are doing all we can to educate business leaders and programmers, but by issuing clear and legally binding guidelines, the Obama administration could quickly bring reluctant businesses to the table and show other well-intentioned but uninformed players a clear path to providing equal service to their clients and customers with disabilities. The administration’s continued refusal to do this is irresponsible. Its failure to act not only leaves disabled computer users on the wrong side of a real digital divide, but ensures that litigation, which is costly both for disability advocates and businesses, will continue for the foreseeable future. 

Recently, the National Federation of the Blind and several other organizations representing Americans with all types of disabilities urged the immediate issuance of the proposed regulations in a letter sent directly to President Obama. From the business perspective, Microsoft and other business leaders have also written to the president calling for the release of the regulations. If the president ignores these requests, the inescapable conclusion will be that he is indifferent to the inequality that is part of everyday life for me and millions of other Americans. This indifference has an intolerably high cost: we are denied equal access to services that are readily available to everyone else, denied educational and employment opportunities, and denied first-class citizenship in twenty-first-century America. If the president is serious about the civil rights of all Americans, a recurring theme in his rhetoric, then he must not renege on the commitment to equal Internet access for Americans with disabilities that he made in 2010. Fortunately, he still has time to honor that commitment. I, along with millions of other people with disabilities, fervently hope that the president will do so immediately. 

Riccobono is president of the National Federation of the Blind.  He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and three children.

More in News

Obama: 'LGBT rights are human rights’

Read more »