Digital Accessibility for AAC Users is a Civil Rights Issue

Last month, CommunicationFIRST submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Justice about the widespread digital discrimination experienced by people who need and use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and on the need for equal access to government websites and apps. You can access our full comments here. We made the following points, among others:

Web Access Is a Civil Rights Issue:  Accessing states’ and localities’ websites and apps are as essential civil rights as entering a government building, school, and public transit. Government websites and apps are a central lever for exercising our civic and constitutionally grounded rights and responsibilities of freedom of expression, assembly, grievance, petition, protest, jury duty, and the franchise. As a matter of right and necessity, people who need AAC must be afforded equally effective access to state and local government websites and apps that all others are afforded.

Digital and Web Access Is Especially Transformative for AAC Users:  For the extremely few of us who can use both speech generating devices as well as the Internet, websites, email, and platforms like Zoom, the results often are positively transformative. But most people who need AAC — regardless of whether they have access to it — have no or meager access to websites, apps, digital content, or other information and communications technology (ICT). As a direct consequence, our members are not only “detached” from community, from what is taking place, and being made possible online. They will also increasingly be made even more invisible, personally and politically powerless, and disposed of by society than is the norm today. This status quo must be upended. The federal, state, and local governments all have a responsibility to disrupt it in ways that bring about greater digital accessibility, inclusion, and equity for all people with disabilities, including those who need AAC.

Flaws in Web Design Prevent Access for Many AAC Users:  For the privileged few of us who both use AAC and can access websites, the access we have is limited, precarious, and unpredictable. A predominant reason for this is that there are two ways to navigate websites: (1) with a mouse; and (2) with voice commands. Both are difficult or completely impossible for most of us with speech and motor disabilities to use. We type each word we say, often with one finger or through eye movements. It is a very time- and labor-intensive process. This said, typing by whatever means we can use is our major and frequently only means of navigating the web. This form of access must remain a federally mandated means of access for accessing and navigating the web and apps. We fear that without such an explicit requirement, state and local government websites and apps will migrate to a voice command only or dominant navigation scheme, functionally barring AAC users from accessing websites, apps and digital content. Another digital design flaw we routinely are thwarted by are websites and apps that have passwords, chat features, and online forms that “time out” and/or erase everything we type after an arbitrary and ableist time period expires.

Complying with WCAG Standards Is Not Onerous:  It should not be onerous for most state and local governments to comply with WCAG standards. CommunicationFIRST, a startup nonprofit with almost no budget, was able to design its website according to WCAG 2.1 (AA) standards back in 2019. It was neither difficult nor expensive to do so.

You can access our complete comments to DOJ on its proposed web access rule under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act here: 2023-10-03 C1st Comments to DOJ on Title II Web Access Proposed Rule.