Web Accessibility: What’s the Law Say?

by Christine Scherer

When talking about web accessibility, many people will reference the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as the law that requires websites to be made accessible. This isn’t an entirely accurate description, however. In actuality, there is no single web accessibility law or statute. Instead, the legal requirements of web accessibility stem from a patchwork of laws and court decisions, which can often lead to confusion when trying to enforce web accessibility standards–especially in higher education. Let’s try to demystify some of this confusion and go through the major laws that dictate web accessibility.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504

While the ADA is the most well-known of disability rights laws, the Rehabilitation Act predates it by almost 20 years, and was the first law passed to protect disabled people from discrimination. Section 504 states that:

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.

This means that any program that receives Federal funding is legally forbidden from discriminating against people with disabilities. This includes virtually all higher education institutions, as majority of colleges and universities receive some kind of Federal funding in the form of student tuition payments: PLUS loans, Perkins loans, Pell grants, etc.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508

This section is one of the most important for web accessibility. Originally drafted in 1998, it bars the U.S. Federal government from obtaining and using any information and communication technology (ICT) that is not accessible to disabled people. This included Internet pages.

While this law might sound like a legal basis for universal web accessibility, it isn’t quitte that. It governs only ICT created or used by the U.S. Federal government; it doesn’t apply to private businesses, universities and colleges, etc. (Due to additional legal requirements, it also mostly applies to state governments, many of whom have voluntarily enacted their own forms of Section 508). However, there has been a trickle-down effect that has led to an increase of accessibility in many consumer products. Technology creators–such as Microsoft or Apple–don’t want to have to create one set of products to sell to the Federal government and another set to sell to the average buyer. It’s cheaper and more efficient to make one product that meets the government’s accessibility standards, which has led to an increase of accessible technology overall.

Section 508 has also recently undergone a “refresh,” being updated to keep pace with new technology as it is developed. This refresh still only officially applies to the Federal government, but as with the original, it will likely have wide-ranging effects. Some of the key elements of the refresh include:

  • Categorizing requirements by product functionality, rather than type; smartphones, for example, are telecommunication devices, audio/visual devices, and computers, three separate types of device. Now, requirements will be sorted by function, so devices that have multiple functions will be covered by all the appropriate requirements.
  • Specifically addressing access needs for people with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities. Previously, the focus was almost exclusively on physical and sensory disabilities.
  • Finally, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are being taken from recommendation to formal requirement. All Federal web content will be required to meet the A and AA criteria.

The refresh goes into effect January 2018, and again, while the law only covers the Federal government, many states, educational institutions, and private businesses will follow it, in order to easily do business with the Federal government

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA is a piece of civil rights legislation that makes sure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in all facets of daily life: education, employment, travel, communication, etc. It does not expressly deal with Internet access, but as the Internet has become more and more a part of daily life, it has often been interpreted to cover web access. Numerous lawsuits and Office of Civil Rights investigations have stemmed from legal complaints of ADA violations, and many have been filed against higher education institutions.

One of these complaints led to an Office of Civil Rights document that provided a “functional definition of accessibility.” This definition said that disabled students must be able to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as non-disabled students with equivalent ease of use.


So what does all this mean for higher education? Taken together, the laws around accessibility and disability rights state that higher education institutions that receive federal funding (i.e., nearly all of them) must provide content that is accessible to all students, regardless of the students’ disabilities or the nature of the content. Whether provided on-ground or online, educational and informative content must be accessible to all.


WebAIM. United States Laws.

Straumsheim, C. (February 3, 2017.) “New Baseline for Accessibility.” Inside Higher Ed.

UDL on Campus. Legal Obligations for Accessibility.

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