Web Accessibility Policy Making:
An International Perspective
This document is an excerpt from the G3ict White Paper “Web Accessibility Policy Making: An International Perspective,” (Revised Edition 2012) researched and edited by Nirmita Narasimhan of Centre for Internet & Society, India, in collaboration with accessibility and disability policy experts from around the world. The paper seeks to identify some of the initiatives and best practices which have been adopted by 14 countries and the European Union as a first step towards policy formulation for countries.
The United States was one of the earliest countries to put in place accessibility policies and guidelines; it has federal legislation covering all aspects of accessibility including infrastructural requirements and web accessibility. The latter is applicable only to federal government agencies but each state has its own additional policies and guidelines. The US is a signatory to the UNCRPD but has not signed the Optional Protocol.
The United States signed the UNCRPD on July 30, 2009. Before this, the United States had enacted legislations to cover various aspects of accessibility. Accessibility is a mandatory requirement for federal websites, though the standards for state websites vary from state to state. Some of the federal regulations are outlined below:
• Section 251(a)(2) and 255 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996:
This Act requires manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable.
• Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973:
This was the first civil rights legislation in the United States designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability status. The law stipulates that no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity that either receives federal financial assistance or is conducted by any executive agency or the United States Postal Service. All government agencies, federally-funded projects, K-12 schools, post-secondary entities (state colleges, universities, and vocational training schools) fall into the category of institutions to which section 504 applies.
• Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998:
This section bars the federal government from developing, maintaining, using or procuring electronic and IT goods and services that are not fully accessible to those with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. This includes web design services, as the section specifically mentions the Internet. Section 508 directed the U.S. Access Board to clarify the meaning of “accessibility” by developing a set of standards. Towards this end, the Board enlisted the help of government, academic, industry, and disability advocacy groups to create the first set of accessibility standards, published on December 21, 2000. Although limited to federal agencies, section 508 is an extremely influential piece of legislation. First, although the WCAG had existed prior to the standards of section 508, the WCAG were simply guidelines, rather than standards, and coming from a voluntary international association, had no regulatory teeth. Section 508, by contrast, provided a checklist in binding statutory language, facilitating compliance and monitoring. Second, section 508 binds most states: any state receiving federal funding under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 must adhere to the standards, and many states have codified the federal law as state law. Finally, any business supplying information and communication goods and services to the government must comply with section 508, and in fact, many large corporations have adopted the section as their official policies.
Additionally, a compliance mechanism is in place: citizens may file complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice, with U.S. administrative agencies, or file a private lawsuit. The Attorney General evaluates overall conformance with section 508 and provides reports to the government every two years.
• Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 1990:
The ADA is a very comprehensive legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The ADA does not explicitly deal with internet accessibility. However, the legal community generally agrees that the ADA sections prohibiting discrimination in communications and public accommodations may apply to web accessibility. While the question of whether the ADA applies to the internet has been raised in US courts, and while various rulings provide some guidance, there is as yet no definitive answer.
• The Assistive Technology Act, 1998:
This is an exclusive Act to support programs of grants to states to address the AT needs of individuals with disabilities. This Act talks about incorporating the principles of universal design in all technologies so that they may be adapted to suit the needs of disabled persons. It also helps to provide financial assistance to states to maintain and strengthen permanent comprehensive statewide programs of technology-related assistance, for individuals with disabilities of all ages.
• US Department of Education’s Requirements for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT) Design v2.0, 2001:
These requirements were developed to promote compliance with sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and lay out the minimum standards to be adhered to by manufacturers and developers of products and tools used by the Department of Education. This is to ensure the accessibility of its programs and activities to individuals with disabilities – specifically, its obligation to acquire accessible electronic and information technology. The document covers not only web accessibility and software/ OS accessibility, but also lays down comprehensive requirements in the area of electronic accessibility.
• 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010:
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 extends the coverage of accessibility provisions to newer technologies and devices including personal laptops, tablets and smart phones.
• Other Acts include Architectural Barriers Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Fair Housing Act, among others, which cover other aspects of accessibility from buildings to education to housing. In addition to federal government policies, each state government may have its own web accessibility policies and standards.
2. Compliance with WCAG:
Not wholly compliant, certain basic components of the WCAG are not covered by section 508.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies only to federal departments and agencies and not to the private sector. The provisions are applicable to all federal government departments, contractors who work with the federal government, and software used by the federal government. The Department of Education’s Requirements are similarly applicable. These, as well as section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973, are geared towards making tools used by government agencies and the federal government accessible to federal employees with disabilities.
The ADA is applicable to the private as well as public sectors, though as mentioned above it is likely but not certain that the ADA applies to the internet. It, and the relevant section of the Telecommunications Act, is geared towards making telecommunications, public services, transport, employment, and accommodation, among other things, accessible to persons with disabilities.
4. Protocol for evaluating and monitoring:
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act empowers the Access Board to periodically review and amend the standards to reflect technological advances or changes in electronic and information technology. The section also makes it mandatory for the head of each federal department or agency to evaluate the extent to which the electronic and information technology of the department or agency is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities and to submit a report containing the evaluation to the Attorney General, who in turn must submit a report to the President on the state of accessibility of federal electronic and information technology. The Federal Communications Commission monitors the implementation of section 251(a) (2) and 255 of the Telecommunications Act, which provides guidelines to manufacturers to ensure accessibility of the equipments and services manufactured.
1. Section 251(a)(2) and 255 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996-
2. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973
3. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
4. Assistive Technology Act, 1998 -
5. Requirements for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT) Design
6. 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility