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 a level playing field for individuals with disabilities. This legislation provides a wide range of services for persons with physical, sensory, 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. Other agencies implement the Act and have different rules that govern how funding recipients must address accessibility. Sections 504 and 508 within the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, have an 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 Section 504 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.

On May 9, 2024, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published an updated rule governing how its funding recipients must ensure access to programs, services, and activities under Section 504. The rule aims to close gaps that were not addressed previously. The rule addresses the following areas:

  • General medical treatment leading to large disparities in health care outcomes.
  • Value assessment methods that result in unjust denial of aids, benefits, or services.
  • Child welfare programs and activities that limit access to programs and activities.
  • Web and mobile accessibility barriers that prevent equivalent access to websites, mobile apps, and kiosks.
  • Accessible medical equipment that excludes disabled people from basic healthcare services.
  • Providing integrated care in Iine with guidance from the Supreme Court since the last revision to Section 504.

The Rule also brings Section 504 into better alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the digital accessibility space, the HHS rules for Section 504 require that funding recipients ensure their websites and mobile apps conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA. There are five allowable exceptions, such as archived content.

Any organization that receives funding from HHS must follow the Rule, including those in the private sector. This strengthened the requirement for organizations to conform to WCAG 2.1 AA significantly. HHS distributes funding through Medicare and Medicaid, grants, and program funding to entities across the healthcare spectrum.

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" EI&T 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 standards requiring compliance of products purchased by the federal government were published in September 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. Section 508 provides compliance language that could be monitored at a distance. Section 508 outlines binding, enforceable standards that must be adhered to in order for E&IT products to be accessible to persons with disabilities. The standards of reference under Section 508 are WCAG 2.0 level AA.
  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. Businesses must comply with Section 508 when supplying EI&T 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 U.S. Federal Government, must be met.

Section 508 enforcement

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division 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. The Attorney General is also required to provide updated reports to the President and Congress on both the accessibility of federal EI&T 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. The 2023 Report is here.