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Justice Department considering expanding accessibility requirements


WASHINGTON—The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division is considering adding accessibility requirements for websites, movies, equipment and furniture used by public agencies and in public places, and 911 call-taking technologies under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department, marking last week's 20th anniversary of the ADA, published formal notice of the proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register last week and is seeking public comment for 180 days.

“We are working hard to ensure that the ADA keeps up with technological advances that were unimaginable 20 years ago,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement of the proposed rules.

In its Federal Register submission, the Justice Department said the Internet did not exist when the ADA was enacted, yet today “being unable to access websites puts individuals at a great disadvantage.”

In 2008, Minneapolis-based retailer Target Corp. agreed to pay $6 million to the National Federation of the Blind, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, to settle charges that the design of Target's retail pages on its website illegally denied access to the visually impaired.

The notice is of concern to “any business that opens itself to the public via a website,” said Peter J. Petesch, a shareholder with law firm Littler Mendelson P.C. in Washington.

Stanley P. Jaskiewicz, a member of law firm Spector Gadon & Rosen P.C. in Philadelphia, said, “The fact that the government is considering regulations doesn't change the law,” which has been in existence for two decades. Businesses should already be considering making their websites accessible to disabled people, he said.

Jared Smith, associate director of Logan, Utah-based WebAIM, a nonprofit associated with Utah State University that performs Web accessibility training, said websites' complexity will be a factor in determining the cost of modifying existing websites to comply with a new regulation. Starting from scratch, providing accessibility features adds 10% to 15% to the cost of developing a website, he said.

The Justice Department also is considering requiring movie theaters to accommodate those with hearing or visual impairment to take advantage of technical advances introduced since the early 1990s.

In April, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that held the ADA does not require movie theaters to alter the content of their services for the disabled. The case was bought by one plaintiff who had a severe hearing loss and a second who was partially blind.

Comments provided in response to the proposed rules will “provide an indication of whether or not the rules impose a large monetary burden” to theater owners, said Jan K. Buddingh, senior counsel with law firm Gordon & Rees L.L.P. in San Diego.

In addition, the Justice Department also is asking for comments on appropriate steps to provide the disabled with access to emergency 911 call systems.

It also is considering accessibility requirements with regard to furniture and equipment used by public agencies and in public places, including medical equipment.

On a related front, the Justice Department last week issued two final rules that revise its ADA regulations, including its ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

One regulation concerned design standards that are applicable to public entities. The second applies to public accommodations and commercial facilities. Both adopt standards for accessible design that are consistent with guidelines developed by the U.S. Architectural & Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, a federal agency.

The regulations generally take effect in six months, although compliance is not required for 18 months.

Further information is available at