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US Accessibility Overview

To clarify the distinctions between Section 504, Section 508, and the ADA, let it be noted that Section 504 outlines the civil rights for individuals with disabilities in the context of programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The ADA expanded the application beyond programs receiving funding from federal sources. Section 508 created specific regulations that are applied to accessible web design. Therefore, Section 508 provides direction to the context of the law emphasized by Section 504.

Section 503

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended in 1998 requires that any contract that the U.S. Federal Government enters into requires the contractor to take affirmative action to employ—and advance in employment—individuals with disabilities.

Section 503 applies to any contract in excess of $10,000 entered into by any Federal department or agency for the procurement of goods or services. Section 503 automatically flows down to any sub-contract awarded by a prime contractor that is in excess of $10,000.

Section 503 Updates

As part of the Department of Labor’s (DoL) Fall 2010 Regulatory Agenda the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has posted an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) relating to the implementation requirements of Section 503. The focus of the updates is ultimately to ensure that U.S. Federal Government contractors increase employment opportunities for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that is intended to protect people with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability status in any program or activity that receives financial assistance from the federal government. As a result, government agencies, K-12 schools, and post-secondary entities (e.g., state colleges and universities) must follow the letter of this act.

In particular, education environments that use the Internet as a method of teaching must realize that this law applies to it. The courts have made it clear that after the fact accommodations will not be tolerated.

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973 (as amended 1998) establishes accessibility requirements for the electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Federal government. Federal employees with disabilities must have access to and use of information and data that is comparable with the access and use by federal employees who do not have disabilities, unless such a change would impose an undue burden on the agency.

Furthermore, people with disabilities who are seeking information or services from a federal agency must also have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to individuals without disabilities, unless such a change would impose an undue burden on the agency.

Section 508 covers all Electronic and Information Technology (EIT). EIT is defined as “any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information.”

Nevertheless, the scope of Section 508 is limited to the federal sector.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) is a broad law that gives civil rights protection to individuals with disabilities similar to that provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications.

To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. The ADA defines a disabled individual as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such impairment or a person who is perceived by others as having such impairment. The determination of whether any particular condition is considered a disability is made on a case by case basis.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA)

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) focuses on ensuring that communications and media services, content, equipment, emerging technologies and new modes of transmission are accessible to users with disabilities. The bill is primarily targeted at communications and video equipment manufacturers, video service providers and producers of video content. The act requires that all communications and video programming service or equipment providers must provide services and equipment in an equally accessible manner to ensure compliance with government regulations for accessibility. The act builds on a variety of current pieces of legislation relating to accessibility, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, amending and extending them as needed.

CVAA Advanced Communication Services

Simply put, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) requires many distributors of video and television broadcasts to provide closed captioning to assist viewers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The rule went into effect on September 30, 2012 and covers three video media types:

  • Internet video programming, television programming and advanced communication services such as interconnected voice over IP (VoIP) services (e.g., Skype),
  • Non-interconnected VoIP services, electronic message services, and
  • Interoperable video conferencing services.
  • Captioning for other types of video will be implemented at a later date.

Section 255

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rules that require telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities, if such access is readily achievable. These rules implement Section 255 of the Communications Act. Where access is not readily achievable, Section 255 requires manufacturers and service providers to make their devices and services compatible with peripheral devices and specialized customer premises equipment that are commonly used by people with disabilities, if such compatibility is readily achievable. The FCC has determined that interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers must comply with Section 255.

Manufacturers and service providers must evaluate the accessibility, usability, and compatibility of their equipment and services as early and consistently as possible throughout their design, development, and manufacture. In addition, companies must review their products for accessibility at every “natural opportunity,” including when they re-design products, upgrade services, or significantly change the way they group together product and service packages. Cosmetic changes that do not change the product’s actual design, such as changes in the color, make, model name, or designation of a product, may not trigger the need to reevaluate access.

NFB-NVA Certification Criteria

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest advocacy group for people that are blind in North America, has established a set of accessibility and usability standards for its Non-visual Accessibility Certification program. These standards are based on the WCAG as well as more general usability criteria. The NFB is the first U.S. advocacy group to offer a web accessibility certification and is designed to provide legal and marketing benefits for certified organizations.

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. In March 1990, the Department of Transportation (DoT) issued a rule defining the rights of passengers and the obligations of air carriers as a direct result of this law. Now, the DoT is in the rule-making process once more, creating regulations regarding the accessibility of carrier websites and ticket kiosks that will require these sites and kiosks to be accessible to people with disabilities.


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