What You Need to Know About the 21st Century IDEA Act

Posted on Friday, 20 September 2019 by Marissa Sapega

On May 10, 2018, Representative Ro Khanna (D) introduced a bill known as the “21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act,” or “21st Century IDEA.” Fundamentally, this law is intended to improve the experience for all Americans engaging with digital Federal property. This is good news in general, right? Well, it’s very good news for people with disabilities! A group often not thought of when designing digital property but now included in the mandate of “All Americans.”

Supported by co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, the bill steadily advanced through the House and Senate. It was ultimately signed into law just seven short months later on December 18, 2018, further cementing the importance of digital accessibility into public mindset.

What does the IDEA Act require, exactly?

The act explicitly states that an executive agency that creates a new digital property or conducts a redesign of an existing digital property intended for public use will have to ensure the end product is accessible and usable by people with disabilities. Terrific news for all users, in my opinion, as making something usable by people with disabilities often improves the experience for everyone! I am personally a fan of easy-to-navigate sites and don’t know anyone who thinks otherwise.

The new or redesigned digital property will need to be in accordance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 is an amendment to the original act that requires Federal agencies to provide an experience for people with disabilities that is comparable to that of a person without a disability when “developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology.”

What falls under the IDEA Act?

As defined in the bill, “digital property” encompasses a variety of technology, including:

  • websites
  • web-based forms
  • web-based applications
  • so-called “digital services.”

While this aspect of the 21st Century IDEA is somewhat redundant with the existing Section 508 directives, it nonetheless reinforces the concept of a more inclusive digital experience – at least for those engaging with Federal digital property! (Which pretty much describes everyone living the in the United States at some point.)

For existing properties, federal agencies have until December 2019 to review all their websites and digital services and submit a list of properties that need to be modernized to comply with the Act’s standards.

In addition to reinforcing existing guidelines for digital accessibility, the 21st Century IDEA also requires the following for federal digital properties:

  • Design consistency across digital properties for a smoother user experience
  • Users need to be able to easily search for content
  • Removal of legacy websites with duplicate content
  • Digital properties be designed so users can achieve their goals with minimal effort — as based on data and analytics from user behavior — and for agencies to be continually testing to improve the experience
  • Need to be accessible on a mobile device as well as desktop
  • New or redesigned websites need to offer a “customized digital experience that allows users to complete digital transactions in an efficient and accurate manner”
  • All paper-based forms to which the public needs access should be available in an accessible digital format.
  • Any digital service (such as filling out forms online) to be made available in an accessible format such that people with disabilities are able to use them. (I don’t know about you, but getting rid of paper forms seems mighty appealing, if only for its positive environmental impact.)

The 21st Century IDEA Act has been widely embraced by the disability community. While it doesn’t explicitly include digital properties as part of the ADA (hopefully someday!), it’s a step in the right direction. Companies interested in improving their digital accessibility (even if they aren’t a federal agency) can consider the following:

  1. Get a free automated accessibility scan of their website for a high level assessment of WCAG failures
  2. Execute an accessibility review to better understand where their site is failing their users
  3. Conduct a UX review to identify areas of opportunity for a frictionless user interface

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