If you’re a contractor who works with the federal government, odds are you’re somewhat familiar with the different regulations and requirements you have to follow in order to get contracts.
The biggest, and arguably the most important, set of regulations are the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) — the set of regulations that the Small Business Administration (SBA) references for all contractual work with the federal government.
The FAR routinely passes updates to their regulations — and soon, another update will go into effect.
The prospective update to the FAR will address digital accessibility, ensuring that all people with a disability are able to navigate federal contractors’ websites just as easily as a person without one. Sources from the SBA Portland District Office have confirmed the update, and that it will be a mandatory regulation for all federal contractors.
In this day and age with business being promoted, conducted, and managed more frequently through online or digital means, it makes sense that the FAR would eventually include regulations in regards to digital space. E-commerce is booming, and even this year’s COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t slow it down.
But aren’t businesses already required to be accessible? And if contractors will soon have to make their websites accessible — what exactly are the standards to be met?
Current Business Regulations Regarding Accessibility
Accessibility regulations aren’t anything new to federal contractors, the FAR, or the SBA; there are already laws in place to promote opportunities and accommodations in the workplace for those with disabilities. But, they are far and wide only addressing physical accommodations, along with hiring standards and equal opportunity to employment.
Specifically, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination within the hiring process and also requires employers to take affirmative action to hire and keep employees with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities overall.
The notable exception to the mostly-physical standards are government entities. Government entities themselves have extremely high standards they must follow in regards to accessibility compliance, including following digital accessibility guidelines. While that standard has yet to officially be handed down to private businesses who do contractual work with the federal government, it is about to change.
Slowly but surely, we are seeing a shift in what is included in accessibility compliance — and it’s going digital, just like everything else. The next FAR update will expand upon these rules for federal contractors — making Section 508 and the ADA apply to all digital spaces as well.
Digital Accessibility and Compliance: ADA, Section 508, and WCAG
Digital accessibility is simply the concept of making all digital spaces and products accessible to everyone. It includes websites, apps, software, and more.
There are several regulations and laws that guide a website’s accessibility, so understanding the differences and applicability of them is crucial. The main takeaways are these:
- ADA – The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990. This law prohibits all discrimination against people who have disabilities. Title III specifically concerns “Public Accommodations.” While the ADA does not explicitly state that it applies to digital spaces, Title III is now frequently being interpreted to include websites as part of the public domain/public service, which is why we’re seeing a rise in digital accessibility lawsuits.
- Section 508 – A specific section in the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973. This law ensures that all federal agencies, departments, and entities make their electronic communications and IT technology accessible to all people with disabilities. In 2018, Section 508 got a refresh — specifically to include requirements for online accessibility. The requirements to follow are called the WCAG, or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They now serve as the threshold for digital accessibility compliance for Section 508. Until now, Section 508 ONLY applied at the federal government level. With the new update from FAR, Section 508 will also apply to federal contractors.
- WCAG – The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are not a law. They are a set of guidelines/requirements made by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), and are referenced as the standard of digital accessibility for both the ADA and Section 508.
The FAR Update Will Benefit More Than Just Your Site Visitors…
While the FAR update will be a mandatory regulation for all federal contractors, it shouldn’t be viewed as an upsetting, frustrating, or daunting task. It will help all parts of society engage with each other, and create a more inclusive digital world. The update will be very beneficial, in more ways than one:
- It will help site users. The most obvious group of people who would benefit from the FAR update are the website users themselves, including prospective customers. An average of 71% of users with a disability will leave a website if they can’t navigate it. And in the United States, almost 20% of the population has some form of disability. That means a significant portion of the population is unable to be included in any sort of digitally social environment, unable to find online information, and unable to make a digital purchase.
- It will support employees. As the Rehabilitation Act states, companies must follow affirmative action and afford equal opportunity to all current and potential employees with a disability. Having a digitally accessible website will ensure a more efficient work environment, since disabled employees will be able to navigate their company website more easily. This will save company time and money. The risk of becoming disabled also increases with age, so maintaining digital accessibility will allow companies to retain extremely qualified and skilled employees as they get older.
- It will increase business profitability. Making your website digitally accessible will also boost a company’s profits. Having an accessible website will allow users with disabilities to engage with the software and website more efficiently, increasing the number of successful transactions. In fact, one study found that a business that made its website accessible not only minimized the number of users who abandoned the website, but also resulted in an additional $2.4 million in annual revenue.
Ultimately, the inclusion and engagement of a large, integral part of our society should be reason enough to help create a digitally accessible space. But making your website accessible will have benefits across the board, and one thing is clear: digital accessibility is good for users, good for companies, and good for business.
When do I Have to Make My Site Accessible?
The FAR doesn’t post any information regarding upcoming changes or updates, so there’s no official, specific date yet (as of the publishing of this post) — at least until the update has publicly been announced in detail. But it’s safe to say that the new update will likely roll out in the next couple of years.
That means that it’s more important than ever to make sure that websites are easily accessible to all people, before the mandatory update goes into effect.
Don’t Wait to Update! Make Your Website Compliant Sooner Rather Than Later
The new regulations may only be in the works…but don’t just wait for the FAR update to make your website digitally accessible. While there currently isn’t a law requiring websites to be compliant, any business can be sued for noncompliance under the ADA. In the past several years the USA has actually seen a substantial rise in web accessibility lawsuits, tied to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That number of lawsuits (and the rise of digital accessibility awareness in general) is expected to continue growing, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court siding with a disabled man in an ADA case against Domino’s last year.
Even setting the impending threat of litigation aside, contractors will be unable to do business with the federal government once the update rolls out, unless they have a digitally accessible website.
There’s no denying it: we live in a digital world. And in the professional world where it’s basically an unspoken rule that a business ought to have an online presence to accompany their physical location (if not replace it altogether), regulating websites is a natural progression for accessibility standards.
Protect yourself legally and avoid the chaotic rush of businesses trying to become accessible all at once down the road — and more importantly, ensure that your website it fit for all users, simply because everyone should be able to find the information they need for daily life. Make sure your business website is accessible today.
** Please Note: The update referenced in this post is in regards to the FAR — it is not an update to the ADA. The ADA does not explicitly state that it applies to digital spaces. However, the FAR update will apply the ADA to all digital spaces solely for federal contractors. **