An Overview of Federal Guidelines for Making Web Sites Accessible to the Disabled

Introduction

New federal rules mandate that virtually all federal government web sites be fully accessible to disabled people.

The rules were published by the Access Board -- officially, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The Access Board is an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. On December 21, 2000, the Board issued accessibility standards for electronic and information technology under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

These rules are particularly important to anyone who contracts with state governments because several states already mandate that any state-purchased or licensed software systems must be compatible with assistive devices for the handicapped. Furthermore, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public institutions to offer services to people with disabilities if they are available to people without disabilities, and mandates that public accommodations must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The new standards could add more than $1 billion a year -- about 3 percent -- to the $38 billion the federal government now spend annually on information technology, the Access Board estimates. The benefit is expected to include great employment among disabled people, a 5 to 10 percent increase in productivity among federal workers with disabilities and a "spillover of technology" that will boost employment and productivity outside the federal government.

For federal Web page designers, "accessibility" means government web pages must be usable by people who have vision or hearing disabilities, have limited use of their hands or suffer from a variety of other disabilities, from colorblindness to photo-sensitive epilepsy triggered by rapidly flashing lights. An information technology system is accessible to people with disabilities if it can be used in a variety of ways that do not depend on a single sense or ability.

The Law: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act and strengthened provisions covering access to information in the federal sector. As amended, section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires access to the federal government's electronic and information technology.

The law covers all types of electronic and information technology in the federal sector and is not limited to assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. It applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain or use such technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and the public to the extent it does not pose an "undue burden." The law directs the Access Board to develop access standards for this technology that will become part of the federal procurement regulations.

A federal agency does not have to comply with the technology accessibility standards if it would impose an undue burden to do so. This is consistent with the language used in the American with Disabilities Act and other civil rights legislation, where the term 'undue burden' has been defined as "significant difficulty or expense." However, the agency must explain why meeting the standards would pose an undue burden for a given procurement action, and must still provide people with disabilities access to the information or data that is affected.

The scope of section 508 is limited to the federal sector. It does not apply to the private sector, nor does it generally impose requirements on the recipients of federal funds. However, states receiving assistance under the Assistive Technology Act State Grant program are required to comply with section 508 and the Board's standards, according to the Department of Education, which administers the Act. The Department plans to issue guidance on how the standards apply to the States under the Assistive Technology Act.

The Rehabilitation Act also mandates that institutions receiving federal funding be made accessible to people with disabilities.

Enforcement and Effective Date

Section 508 uses the federal procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the federal government is accessible to the disabled. The law also sets up an administrative process under which individuals with disabilities can file a complaint alleging that a federal agency has not complied with the standards. It provides injunctive relief and attorneys' fees to the prevailing party but does not include compensatory or punitive damages. Individuals may also file a civil action against an agency.

The enforcement provisions of section 508 take effect six months from the date the Board published its final standards, that is, on June 21, 2001.

By statute, the enforcement provisions of section 508 apply only to electronic and information technology procured on or after the effective date.

Section 508 standards will become part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation and other federal laws that govern agency buying. Companies that fail to create software and hardware that meet accessibility standards will no longer be able to sell to federal agencies.

The Standards

The standards are divided into four subparts: (1) general, (2) technical standards, (3) functional performance criteria, and (4) information, documentation, and support.

The general section outlines what is covered and what is exempt. It includes computers, software, networks, peripherals and other types of electronic office equipment. The standards exempt systems for military command, weaponry, intelligence and cryptologic activities. The standards cover technology procured by federal agencies under contract with a private entity, but apply only to those products directly relevant to the contract and its deliverables.

The technical standards provide criteria specific to various types of technologies, including: software applications and operating systems; web-based information or applications; telecommunication products; video and multimedia products; self-contained, closed products (such as information kiosks, calculators and fax machines); and desktop and portable computers.

Most of the specifications for software pertain to usability for people with vision impairments. For example, one provision requires alternative keyboard navigation. Other provisions address animated displays, color and contrast settings, flash rate and electronic forms, among others. The criteria for web-based technology and information are based on access guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C has standing and draft standards -- for browsers, web sites and applications such as media players -- that outline and encourage the development of universally usable interfaces.

The criteria for the telecommunications products subpart are designed primarily to ensure access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The functional performance requirements are intended for overall product evaluation and for technologies or components for which there is no specific requirement under the technical standards.

The final subpart ensures the accessibility of information, documentation and support, including such devices as user guides, customer support and installation guides. This subpart requires the availability of alternate formats such as braille, cassette recording, large print and captioning to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

Private Efforts to Improve Accessibility

The federal government is not alone in taking action on this front. Private companies and research entities have demonstrated significant initiative in improving access for people with disabilities in the New Economy. In a major policy address in the fall of 2000, President Clinton called attention to these initiatives. "Breaking down barriers is not enough," Clinton noted. "People actually have to have the tools they need to take advantage of this remarkable moment of opportunity -- especially the tools they need in cyberspace."

President Clinton called attention to a letter he received from the CEOs of leading high-tech companies indicating their commitment to a corporate-wide policy on accessibility. Pledged to this goal are the CEOs of 3Com, Adobe, AOL, AT&T, Bell South, Compaq, eBay, Global Crossing, Handspring, Hewlett-Packard, Macromedia, Microsoft, NCR, PeoplePC, Qualcomm, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems, among others.

In addition, the heads of the nation's top 25 research universities -- including the University of California, the University of Michigan, and MIT -- promised President Clinton that they would take a number of important steps to expand research and education on accessibility. These efforts will include ensuring that computer scientists and engineers receive training on accessibility, expanding the number of faculty who conduct research on accessibility, and ensuring that university online resources are accessible to people with disabilities.

The Access Board and the General Services Administration (GSA) are directed to provide technical assistance to individuals and Federal agencies concerning the requirements of Section 508. The Federal Information Technology Accessibility Initiative is an interagency effort, coordinated by GSA, to offer technical assistance and to provide an informal means of cooperation and sharing of information on implementation of Section 508.

The General Services Administration has presented 13 rules for accessible Web pages. Further explanations of how to build accessible technology can be found at "Designing More Usable Web Site," from Trace Research and Development Center, part of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In addition, the Department of Education has provided a five-year, $7.5 million grant to the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Rehabilitation Technology. The grant will provide training and technical assistance on universal design to technology manufacturers, product managers and purchasers of information technology.

The new rules could be the first step toward enforcement of a federal mandate that all private commercial sites also be accessible to the disabled. In court papers, the Justice Department has contended that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to private Internet sites.

In November 1999, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed suit against America Online Inc. (AOL) claiming that, unlike other Internet providers, AOL's software was not compatible with the screen-access software used by the blind. On July 26, 2000, AOL announced that it had agreed to work with NFB to ensure that AOL content is largely accessible to the blind.


  • This article was originally published on GigaLaw.com in March 2001