Last Updated on June 19, 2015.

Web Access Put Plain and Simple

About Accessibility Laws

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology available to people with various disabilities. This amendment, called Section 508, was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.

In January 2001, the U.S. government stipulated that all government websites must comply with Section 508 Standards by June 21, 2001. Anyone with a disability who does not have "comparable access to and use of information and data" on a Federal agency website after this date may file a complaint or civil action against the Federal department or agency that has not complied.

Providing access to individuals with disabilities is not just required by government websites. In 1996 the Department of Justice ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to the Web, not just to places that can be accessed physically. A retailer whose website doesn't meet ADA standards can be sued under the Act, just as a brick-and-mortar store can.

This legislation, largely overlooked by web content providers since its inception, has become increasingly relevant to many content providers, partly due to high-profile lawsuits filed by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) against content providers such as AOL and Target Corporation.

Last Updated on June 14, 2009

Why Comply? There are four primary reasons that content providers should accommodate disabled visitors:

  1. Visitors with disabilities generate revenue. Content providers vastly underestimate this market. Online shopping and services are very important to people with disabilities, who often can't drive or face other difficulties shopping in a brick-and-mortar environment. Companies that fail to reach this market are losing out on a powerful source of revenue and a key demographic of loyal repeat-customers.
  2. Reach a larger audience. Approximately one in five Americans (20%) has some type of disability, and as the country ages that percentage is expected to increase. People with disabilities span ethnic, economic and geographic boundaries. Failing to provide access to this diverse and numerous segment of the American population is contrary to the interests of anyone providing online content or services.
  3. It's the law. Failure to take reasonable steps to provide access to web content for visitors with disabilities is a violation of the ADA and Section 508. Content providers who do not comply with these laws may be subject to costly lawsuits that invariably lead to the revision of the web content, loss of government funding, or termination of government contracts.
  4. It's not that difficult. Many web content providers don't provide access for the people with disabilities because they believe that the cost of updating their site to bring it "up to code" is prohibitive, or that their web site's visual appeal will suffer adversely from the changes. This is simply untrue. Compared with potential revenues generated by visitors with disabilities, the cost of revamping web content to meet accessibility standards is insignificant and need not interfere with the site's appearance at all.

How to Meet Requirements

The best way for web content providers to meet federal and state accessibility requirements is to comply with Section 508 Standards. Using a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) helps identify deficiencies as well as areas of Section 508 compliance. Download the VPAT in Microsoft Word format (209 kb), Rich Text Format (298 kb), or HTML format (40 kb). (Note: If you do not have Microsoft Word installed on your computer to view this document, you may download OpenOffice to open and view the document for free.)