California businesses have for years complained about lawsuits related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, where plaintiffs visit their stores or restaurants and then demand financial damages after finding oftentimes technical violations of the accessibility rules. At one point last year, 20-some businesses in thedowntown area of one northern California city were hit with such suits.
Yet the Legislature has been slow to deal with the problem. This is the first time in years a far-reaching reform bill has moved forward. SB 251 would give businesses 30 days to cure any violation – and even provide them with a tax credit to help pay for the fixes. It recently passed the Senate unanimously, which is one of the session’s good-news stories (so far).
But I thought of those businesses after reading a new report from California State Auditor Elaine Howle detailing the ways some California agencies have failed to comply with the government’s own regulations designed to assure that disabled people have access to myriad government web sites. The audit reviewed California’s community colleges, the Department of Human Resources, Covered California and the Franchise Tax Board.
If private businesses had similar violations, “it would be lawsuit city,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, and an author of a bill this year (SB 624) that would have established an Office of Accessible Technology to be responsible for assuring that accessibility standards are met in all state agencies. The bill was held in the appropriations committee.
The state’s failure to make its web services more accessible is a long-running problem. In 2003 California legislators passed a law requiring state sites to meet federal disability standards. Howle’s 85-page report documents myriad lingering problems and “the lack of regular accessibility testing at most of these departments.” There’s a lack of training, too.
And these websites aren’t for entertainment, obviously. Californians increasingly are dependent on official sites to pay their taxes, schedule driving tests, sign up for health care and access court documents. “Our country is based on representative government,” Anderson added. “If people don’t have access to the government they paid for, that’s wrong. I can avoid a business, but I can’t hide from the Franchise Tax Board.”
Many of the identified violations are serious. “Although the violations of web accessibility standards ranged in severity, some of them are so severe that elements of the departments’ websites were completely inaccessible to users with disabilities while other violations may prevent persons with disabilities from completing tasks necessary to access certain online services,” Howle explained in her letter to the governor and legislative leaders.
For example, the auditor found that during the review persons with disabilities who navigate the Internet using a keyboard would not be able to start an online application for health insurance using Covered California’s website.
Covered California – the state-run site that lets people sign up for health care – had many violations, with specific problems detailed in the report. Anderson sees Covered California’s failure as the most significant problem given the state will fine people if they don’t have health care – yet the site is not fully accessible to the disabled.
Given rapid developments in the Internet world, it might be understandable why some older government sites are struggling to conform to the latest standards. But what explains the new health-care site, which was developed in the last couple of years?
The report called on the Legislature to pass new laws update the standards, which might be a challenging proposition given many state governmental agencies already struggle to comply with the current, outdated ones. The auditor also called on state departments to come up with a system to track and resolve complaints, which is a website basic. And she said the state’s standards “do not reflect current best practices.” That’s pretty clear.
Anderson makes the salient point. California residents with disabilities have no choice but to deal with their government, but they are left having to hire outside help to navigate web-based systems that are supposed to be accessible to them. California officials haven’t complained much about businesses that are punished for failing to comply with every jot and tittle of the ADA, but haven’t done much about state agencies that are way out of compliance.