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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at National Federation of the Blind National Convention


Orlando, FL
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good afternoon. It is great to be here. I want to start off by thanking President Riccobono for that very gracious introduction and for the honor of being with all of you today. I also just want to note at the outset, again, my name is Kristen Clarke, and I am the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the United States Department of Justice. I am a 5’4” Black woman wearing a navy suit.

And I also want to just take a moment to acknowledge my colleagues who are with me, the extraordinary Jennifer Mathis, a long-time disability rights advocate, and Adam Lewis, a trial attorney at the Justice Department, as well. And, just also want to take a point of personal privilege to acknowledge how exciting it is to share a stage today with Judge David Tatel, whose career encompasses a wide range of civil rights issues and whose personal experiences and extraordinary contributions on the bench model courage and perseverance for this community.

I’m so thrilled to be here with you today during the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)’s National Convention to speak about the work of the U.S. Department of Justice and to talk about how we are working to vindicate the rights of blind people and of other people with disabilities. The Federation’s National Convention is a marquee event for the disability rights and civil rights community every year. But this year, in particular, we have some especially noteworthy achievements to celebrate even as we recommit ourselves to the work that still lies ahead.

Two years ago, the participants at this convention adopted a resolution urging the federal government to take action to ensure the accessibility of websites and mobile applications.

That resolution explained why the need for federal action was so critical. It noted how essential the internet has become in the lives of most Americans — citing, for example, that 85% of American adults visit the internet at least once a day and that the digital economy alone accounts for nearly 10% of the United States’ gross domestic product.

The resolution explained that despite the importance of digital spaces, they too often are inaccessible to blind people and others with disabilities. It cited studies which had found that accessibility barriers existed in more than 97% of websites. And it noted that these barriers prevented blind people and others with disabilities from fully participating in the mainstream of American economic, cultural and political life.

Four months earlier, in March 2022, 181 disability rights and civil rights organizations — and that included you all, the NFB, the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Disability Rights Network — sent the Justice Department a letter urging us to finalize a rule on web and mobile application accessibility. We also heard loud and clear the disability community’s call for a web rule at our quarterly meetings with national disability groups.

At the Civil Rights Division, we listened. We too had been grappling with the need for a technical standard about the ADA’s web accessibility requirements as we sought to enforce the American[s] with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s protections in the digital world. We also knew this problem was growing increasingly acute as the internet became a more pervasive and essential part of all of our lives.

So, in the fall of 2022, we announced that we would be issuing proposed regulations under Title II of the ADA setting forth specific requirements for web and mobile app accessibility for state and local government entities. And then, in the summer of 2023, we did exactly that.

I’m not going to recount every administrative and bureaucratic hurdle that we encountered during the rulemaking process for you here today — if I did that, we would probably have to add another two to three days to this convention and start distributing espressos and energy drinks.

What I will say, though, is that no part of the federal rulemaking process is easy. And web accessibility is a particularly difficult field to promulgate regulations in because the slow-moving rulemaking process is not a natural fit with the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

We overcame these challenges because we had a team of tireless individuals working day and night on this, especially in our Disability Rights Section. They were committed to getting the job done and doing it in the best way possible. These folks devoted weeks, months, and in some cases years of their lives to analyzing and thinking through every wrinkle of the proposed regulation. They also were deeply committed to hearing from people with disabilities and to ensuring that the rule was genuinely responsive to the concerns that prompted the call for action.

We received comments from a wide variety of stakeholders that included advocacy groups, state and local government entities, trade groups and people with disabilities.

Some of the public comments hammered home why the need for the rule was so critical. One commenter noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had reinforced, “just how dependent we are as individuals, a nation, and humanity on becoming and staying connected to and with each other and our government via the Internet. Our education, physical and mental health, sense of self, safety, security, life, liberties, and pursuit of happiness will increasingly be determined by whether or not we have ready, ubiquitous access to all digital content.”

That same commenter noted that, “If [people with disabilities] are effectively barred from accessing websites and apps, and exercising the personal agency that comes from doing so, their lives, opportunities, and futures will be even more limited, segregated, and marginalized.”

Another commenter emphasized that, “As blind and visually impaired adults, we live just as independent, productive, and self-sufficient as anyone would. We use web sites and mobile applications with screen readers on our computers and smart devices to complete any number of daily tasks including banking, budgeting, shopping, scheduling rides, tracking health records such as vitals, glucose, water intake, and medication management, researching, school assignments, career exploration, filling out paperwork, and staying connected to loved ones...our privacy, confidentiality, and livel[i]hoods depend on full unrestricted accessibility of any web site and mobile app available to anyone else.”

Our team read every single one of these comments. And we adjusted the final rule to respond to those comments and to balance the concerns of the diverse group of stakeholders that weighed in. And at the same time, they deftly worked to navigate the substantive and logistical hurdles that are part of every federal rulemaking process. Some of our team members, who had been part of the 2010 rulemaking process, knew all too well that a final rule was not guaranteed until it was signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland and codified in the Federal Register.

And it was thus with great joy that we crossed that finish line earlier this year. On Wednesday, April 24, the Federal Register published the department’s final rule under Title II of the ADA. This landmark and historic rule will help ensure that the web content and mobile apps of state and local governments are accessible to people with disabilities.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this rule. Although the ADA has always required public entities to ensure that people with disabilities can access all of an entity’s services and programs and activities, the initial ADA regulation didn’t include any specific standards for web accessibility because the web was at its infancy when the ADA was passed.

And, as the NFB’s 2022 resolution made clear — and as we heard so often over the years from so many members of the public—the lack of a technical standard in this area created widespread barriers for people with disabilities to access state and local government websites and apps.

The impact of these barriers has only grown as state and local governments have moved more of their services, programs and activities online. It’s now commonplace to use websites and apps to apply for government benefits, register to vote, access course materials, renew government-issued ID, file taxes, pay fines, obtain up-to-date health and safety resources, request copies of vital records, access mass transit schedules and so much more.

When people with disabilities are excluded from state and local government websites and mobile apps, it can be hard or impossible for them to access these and other critical services.

We believe — I’ll say we know this rule will help correct that injustice and will advance — and advance the ADA’s promise of full and equal participation in society for people with disabilities. It’s a huge step forward towards an America where people with disabilities are fully included in all spaces, regardless of whether the space is physical or digital.

Now, I have talked at length about our web rule and with good reason — it is truly a historic milestone. But the web rule is just part of the work that we do every day in this space.

Web accessibility has been a division priority for many years. Even before enactment of the rule, the Justice Department had long maintained that the ADA applied to web content, and we repeatedly used our enforcement authority to ensure that people with disabilities had access to goods, services, programs and activities that governments were making available online. In recent years, in particular, we have pursued enforcement actions in other critical areas including voting, education and healthcare.

In the area of voting, just last month, we secured settlement agreements with several counties in Texas whose election websites were inaccessible for people with vision or manual disabilities, a timely issue. These election websites provide essential information about how to vote, about registering to vote, identification requirements, early voting and specific information for people with disabilities. Under the settlement agreements, these counties agreed to make all future and existing online content accessible. And they will adopt new policies and training for personnel, hire independent auditors to evaluate the accessibility of their sites and solicit feedback from the community.

Just one day after announcing those agreements in Texas, we issued findings that Alaska violated the ADA by maintaining an inaccessible elections website. As in Texas, we found that voters with disabilities faced barriers to obtaining key information on Alaska’s election website, including voter registration forms, candidate statements, voting dates and polling site locations. This work is motivated by a simple principle — people with disabilities must be able to exercise their voice in our democracy.

Now, public education in the U.S. is another area where the importance of the internet is ever increasing. Many public schools at all levels now offer programs and instruction online. Many public colleges and universities rely heavily on websites and other online technologies in the application process for prospective students; for housing eligibility and on-campus living assignments; for course registration and course content; and for a wide variety of administrative and logistical functions in which students must participate. And, sadly, in many public elementary and secondary school settings, teachers and administrators communicate via the web with parents and students about grades, assignments, schedule changes and safety alerts sadly on platforms that are not accessible.

When these online tools and content are inaccessible, it denies students and parents with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from educational programming. We are working to address this injustice.

In 2022, we secured a consent decree with the University of California (UC) at Berkeley to resolve allegations that the school violated Title II by failing to make online content accessible to people with hearing, vision and manual disabilities. The decree requires UC Berkeley to make the vast majority of its existing online content accessible — including a large collection of online courses, videos and podcasts — and to make all of its future online content accessible going forward. The school is also revising its policies, training relevant personnel, conducting accessibility testing, hiring an independent auditor and more.

We followed that decree and amplified it — amplified its impact by joining with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to issue a Dear Colleague Letter in May of last year reminding every college and university and postsecondary institution in our country about their obligations under the ADA and under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

And we do this work because blind people and people with disabilities deserve full and equal access to educational opportunity in our country. Period.

Now, healthcare is another area of American life that’s increasingly moving online. It’s also an area where accessibility barriers can be a matter of life and death. In 2021 and 2022, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached settlement agreements with CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger, Hy-Vee and Meijer to eliminate barriers that prevented people with disabilities from effectively using those company’s websites to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments. CVS, which is the country’s largest retail pharmacy, with nearly 10,000 locations, had a COVID-19 registration portal that people using screen readers could not access. At the beginning of the scheduling process, the portal did not read aloud the types of vaccine appointments offered. And on the page where users were meant to pick an appointment time, screen reader users were told that all available times were “checked,” even when they had made no selection.

At a time when the pandemic was raging across our country and many people with disabilities had underlying conditions placing them at higher risk of COVID infection or complication, it’s not hard to understand how barriers to vaccination like these were tremendously harmful.

Together with the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2022 we issued a guidance on non-discrimination in telehealth to explain the protections that laws like the ADA, Section 504 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the Affordable Care Act, we explained how those laws apply to people who are blind or low vision. The guidance is designed to help health care providers understand their obligations and empower patients by ensuring that they know their rights under federal law.

In America, we deserve a healthcare system that treats people who are blind and low vision with the full dignity and respect that they deserve.

Most recently in January of this year, we secured a settlement with Service Oklahoma to resolve findings that the state agency’s mobile ID application was inaccessible. The app required users to take pictures of the front and back of their IDs and to take pictures of themselves by connecting dots that appear on the screen using only head and eye movements. Both tasks were difficult or impossible for blind people to complete because they received no verbal feedback.

In 2021 we reached an agreement with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in Illinois to resolve allegations that the district’s website and mobile apps, which allow users to plan trips, check arrival times,and find fare information, were inaccessible to users with vision and manual impairments. Just a snapshot of some of the broader work that we’re doing to ensure that state and local governments make their websites and apps accessible.

So, lastly, I’ve focused thus far on our enforcement work related to web accessibility, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this is just a part of the Justice Department’s broader work to vindicate the rights of people who are blind or low vision. One area where we’re deeply engaged — which coincidentally was also the subject of a resolution at the 2022 NFB National Convention — is in protecting the rights of blind people in our nation’s jails and prisons.

The NFB’s 2022 resolution on this topic rightly noted that blind people held in jails and prisons throughout the country faced disparate and discriminatory treatment that included being denied accommodations and effective communication and being denied equal access to training and work programs.

Last November, we reached a settlement agreement with Arizona’s state prison system to address findings that state prisons discriminated against people who are blind or low vision. We found that Arizona prisons, which house more than 35,000 people, failed to reasonably modify their policies or provide auxiliary aids and services, such as Braille materials and displays, audio recordings and screen reader software, to ensure that people who are blind or low vision could communicate effectively while incarcerate. The state also failed to provide accessible processes to request accommodations or file disability-related complaints. They also over-relied on other incarcerated people to help those who are blind or low vision without properly training or supervising those providing help. Under our agreement, Arizona is adopting systemwide reforms to address our findings and to correct and prevent future discrimination.

We’re also engaged in robust efforts to address physical accessibility issues affecting people who are blind or low vision. Most notably, in 2021, we intervened in a lawsuit in Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States. Alleging that the city failed to provide people who are blind, low vision or deaf-blind with equal access to pedestrian signal information at intersections. While Chicago currently provides sighted pedestrians visual crossing signals at nearly 2,800 intersections, we found that fewer than 1% of those were equipped with accessible pedestrian signals for people who are blind or low vision. We can’t tolerate this in our country today. In March of last year, the federal court granted summary judgment in our favor and held Chicago liable for violating the ADA and Section 504.

Now, we know that our work on all these fronts is far from done and we appreciate the importance of addressing the intersectionality of disability and race, gender, sexuality and class as people who experience overlapping forms of discrimination, face unique challenges and we bring than lens to the work every day.

And with regard to web access, we know that despite enactment of our Title II web rule, there is still much to do to educate public entities and other members of the public about the rule’s requirements and to vigorously enforce the law so that the increased clarity it provides results in increased compliance.

We also know that Title II is just one piece of the web accessibility puzzle and that many folks in this room are advocating for regulations under Title III that will apply to the digital spaces of public accommodations. We appreciate the eagerness, and we appreciate your continued advocacy.

But the publication of the web rule marked the culmination of years of hard work both inside and outside of government.

But I would be remiss if I closed today without thanking you. I want to thank the people in this room who pushed for and contributed to the development of this rule. Your advocacy, your voice has shown the power and agency of the disability community. And I’m confident that we’ll continue to work with you to open new chapters in the road ahead.

Today, though, I close by asking that we just take a moment to pause, and to reflect on the great work that we have done together, and to celebrate the huge steps that we’ve taken in recent years on our march towards a more just and accessible world.

The U.S. Department of Justice looks forward to continuing that march alongside all of you. And we will keep marching with you until we achieve an America where every person who is blind or low vision can live free from discrimination, with equal access to opportunity and the full capacity to achieve their dreams. Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated July 8, 2024