United States Laws
Overview of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and 508)

Introduction

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first major legislative effort to secure an equal playing field for individuals with disabilities. This legislation provides a wide range of services for persons with physical and cognitive disabilities. Those disabilities can create significant barriers to full and continued employment, the pursuit of independent living, self-determination, and inclusion in American society. The Rehabilitation Act has been amended twice since its inception, once in 1993 and again in 1998. The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) administers the Act. Two sections within the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, have impact on accessible web design. These are Sections 504 and 508.

Section 508 of the act, as now amended, provides for us a blueprint of just what is intended in Section 504. Thus, Section 504 provides the context of the law and Section 508 provides the direction.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law. It was the first civil rights legislation in the United States designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability status. The nondiscrimination requirements of the law apply to employers and organizations that receive federal financial assistance. This statute was intended to prevent intentional or unintentional discrimination based on a person's disability. Included as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the message of this section is concise; Section 504, 29 U.S.C.§794, states:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Therefore, programs receiving federal funds may not discriminate against those with disabilities based on their disability status. All government agencies, federally-funded projects, K-12 schools, postsecondary entities (state colleges, universities, and vocational training schools) fall into this category.

Section 508

The Reauthorized Rehabilitation Act of 1998 included amendments to Section 508 of the Act. This section bars the Federal government from procuring electronic and information technology (E&IT) goods and services that are not fully accessible to those with disabilities. This would include the services of web design since the Internet was specifically mentioned.

Section 508 directed the Access Board (The Architectural, and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) to create binding, enforceable standards that clearly outline and identify specifically what the federal government means by "accessible" electronic and information technology products.

The Access Board enlisted the help of government, academic, industry, and disability advocacy groups to create the EITAAC, or Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee. With the help of this committee the Access Board was able to create the first set of accessibility standards for Federal E&IT and publish them December 21, 2000.

Influence of Section 508

So, why is Section 508 such a big deal? Although limited to federal agencies, Section 508 is an extremely influential piece of legislation. There are at least 4 reasons why this is so.

  1. Section 508 provided the first-ever US federal accessibility standard for the Internet. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines existed prior to this; however, these guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) were not intended to be written as standards. Plus, these guidelines came from a voluntary international body with no regulatory power.
  2. This section provides compliance language that could be monitored at a distance. As stated earlier, guidelines did exist, but not in statutory language. Section 508 outlines binding, enforceable standards that must be adhered to in order for E&IT products to be accessible to persons with disabilities. A list of the Section 508 standards that apply to web accessibility is provided in the WebAIM Section 508 Checklist.
  3. State governments may be held accountable for complying with Section 508. All states receive funding under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. To gain access to this funding, each state must assure the federal government they will implement all conditions of Section 508 within their state entities (including higher education). Many states have codified Section 508 to be state law (e.g., Arizona, Nebraska, and Wisconsin), which requires state institutions to comply with these requirements. View some examples of state accessibility laws and policies.
  4. Businesses must comply with Section 508 when supplying Electronic and Information Technology goods and services to the federal government. The influence of web accessibility on business and industry is more significant when the demands of a client, or potential client, like the US federal government, must be met.

Section 508 enforcement

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights is charged with enforcing Section 508. When complaints arise, members of the public, students, and employees with disabilities may:

  1. File an administrative complaint with agencies they believe to be in violation of Section 508.
  2. They may file a private lawsuit in federal district court, or
  3. They can file a formal complaint through the US Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights.

Evaluation of conformance to Section 508

The Attorney General is required to evaluate how well the government is conforming to Section 508. They are also required to provide updated reports to the President and Congress on both the accessibility of federal electronic and information technology to people with disabilities and the resolution of Section 508 complaints filed against federal agencies. The first such report was given in Aug. 2001, and others will be given every two years thereafter.