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Technical Standards and Legal Regulations

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act came into effect for the US federal government in 2001. This law requires that any information and communication technology developed, maintained, or purchased by the US government or its agencies be accessible according to relatively specific guidelines. While this law does not apply to private company web sites —- only to the US federal government’s websites —, the intention was that the considerable purchasing power of the federal government would extend accessibility to the private sector. It was reasoned that companies wanting to sell to the US federal government would not create two versions of their products, an accessible one for sale to the government, and second non-accessible one for the private market, but rather a single accessible one for both markets.

The provisions of Section 508 are currently being harmonized with WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which are the de facto standard throughout the rest of the world.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an industry standard for accessibility developed and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organization responsible for maintaining many of the web standards including HTML. It is not a law or legally binding in any way, though many jurisdictions have used it directly or indirectly for setting accessibility law and policy.

WCAG forms the basis for most other web accessibility standards, including the US federal government’s Section 508, which was based on WCAG 1.0. The standard is currently in version 2.0, which is the version increasingly used throughout the world.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 1990 and establishes broad protections for people with disabilities in a number of different aspects of life. One of the key components of the law is Title III, which affects “Public Accommodations (and Commercial Facilities)”, which effectively means private businesses. However, the ADA does not mention the internet or the world wide web since the Act was passed years before the widespread adoption of the internet.

There have been a number of court cases that have looked at the question of whether web sites are covered under the ADA. In a recent court case involving Target, the ADA was deemed to apply to web sites directly related to goods and services sold in brick-and-mortar establshments. In the same case California’s disability legislation was deemed applicable to any web site with customers in California. The full issue has not been definitively settled. This implies that web sites need to ensure broad access for people with disabilities.

In 2010, the US Deparment of Justice issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking indicating that it wants to make private company web sites explicitly subject to the ADA. Eventually web sites will be subject to the same provisions that physical business establishments like shops, movie theaters, and bowling alleys already are. It really is just a matter of time.