Did you know that a typical American adult has a greater than 1 in 4 chance of becoming disabled, even temporarily, at some point in their life? Disabilities in all walks of life are more common than we typically think.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most extensive laws to grant equity to a portion of America’s population that historically was often forgotten and ignored, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Political scientists consider this to be one of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA covers urban design, architecture, transportation, access to medical treatment, IT services, access to public places, parking, employment, and—most relevant to this article—how to make sure we accommodate those with disabilities in public engagement activities.

Many of us are familiar with some of more common ADA regulations, such as ensuring enough accessible parking spaces or requiring the “tactile paving” (i.e., bumps) on crosswalk ramps for the visually impaired, but the ADA is far more reaching than most people know. The law gives rise to the term “reasonable accommodations” throughout most corners of society—and this includes public engagement in the public planning process. This means that when conducting public engagement, agencies must go above and beyond to make sure those with a disability can participate in the same activities as non-disabled people.

Options for Reasonable Accommodation in Digital Public Engagement
It is important to remember that public engagement includes not only meetings, but any activity for information dissemination, input, engagement, and collaboration, whether in person or through digital and telecommunications media. Most local governments are subject to Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act and Title III of the ADA. Section 508 requires websites and electronic content to be compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. See the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative for more information.

So what does this mean?

Here are some things to consider when planning digital engagement to help ensure disabilities are properly accommodated: make your content compatible with on-screen magnifiers and text-to-speech technology for the visually impaired or blind; provide closed-captioning services for webinars and web conferences to aid the hearing impaired; and offer the ability to request reasonable accommodations well before an event via email, telephone, and TTY devices, if available.

COVID-19 and ADA Compliance
Even during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing protocols and orders, the ADA still applies. It is a federal law and thus must still be considered even with various states’ governors’ executive orders suspending portions of open meeting laws and providing more flexibility for teleconferencing and web-conferencing for public meetings and engagement. Please see this statement from the Assistant Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on protecting the civil rights of Americans while responding to COVID-19.

We are here to help!
ESA’s public engagement and technology experts work with our clients to develop comprehensive public engagement strategies; provide hosting, facilitation, and platforms for public meetings; work with online engagement vendors; and create customized engagement platforms for your projects, meetings, and plans. Please email me for assistance with your next plan, engagement strategy, event, or meeting.