WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

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


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. The Rehabilitation Act has been amended three times since its inception, once in 1993, once in 1998, and again in 2015. The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) administers the Act. Sections 504 and 508 within the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, have impact on accessible web design.

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 federal agencies and employers and organizations that receive federal financial assistance. This statute was intended to prevent intentional or unintentional discrimination based on a person's disability. The primary message of this section is concise:

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.

Section 504 has been and continues to be cited in numerous lawsuits, many of which have significantly influenced federal and state accessibility policy. A complete accounting of these lawsuits is well beyond the scope of this article, but their impact cannot be overstated.

Section 508

The Reauthorized Rehabilitation Act of 1998 included amendments to Section 508 of the Act. This section bars the Federal government from developing, using, or procuring electronic and information technology (E&IT) goods and services (including web design) that are not accessible to those with disabilities.

Section 508 directs the US Access 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 first set of accessibility standards for Federal E&IT. They were published December 21, 2000. >Updated standardsFederal Acquisition Regulation (pdf) which requires compliance of products purchased by the federal government was published September of 2021.

Influence of Section 508

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

  1. Section 508 provided the first-ever US federal accessibility standard for the Internet in 2000. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 1.0 existed prior to this; however, prior to 2000 no accessibility standards existed in federal requirements.
  2. This section provides compliance language that could be monitored at a distance. ASection 508 outlines binding, enforceable standards that must be adhered to in order for E&IT products to be accessible to persons with disabilities. The current requirements for web content generally mirror WCAG 2.0.
  3. State governments may be held accountable for complying with Section 508. All states that receive funding under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 must assure the federal government they will implement all conditions of Section 508 within their state entities (including higher education). Many states have codified the requirements of Section 508 to be state law. View some examples of state accessibility laws and policies.
  4. 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 are to be given every two years thereafter. An example of the 2012 report to Congress is provided.