Legal Compliance & Standards

Accessibility Legislation and Standards in the US

Lady Justice with a blindfold, a balance, and a sword.

Over the last decade, throughout the world, there have been several laws and guidelines that have been adopted in regards to accessibility standards.

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) has served as the governing law that provides for the civil rights of individuals with disabilities and ensures equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications.

Disability and the ADA

Per the ADA, to be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. A disability is defined as …"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."

There is a vast number of disabilities but the generally accepting grouping is:

  • Visual impairments – This includes individuals with blindness, low vision, age-related vision impairments, etc.
  • Hearing impairments – Auditory impairments, including individuals with low hearing or no hearing at all
  • Physical impairment – Mobility impairments and physically-related disabilities, including loss of limbs, paralysis, mobility and genetic disorders that affect movements
  • Cognitive impairments – Individuals with mental health and behavior disorders or learning disabilities that affect comprehension and attention, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or individuals on the Autism spectrum.

Since the inception of the ADA, accessibility advocates and policy makers have been working to shape policies to best address the specific needs of individuals with disabilities.

While a large number of countries throughout Europe and Asia have adopted more clearly defined accessibility laws and have been proactive with mandates, the U.S. has adopted the WC3 (the international standard for website accessibility) as a guide for determining precedence with accessibility design.

While the ADA is the wide-ranging law that governs over the civil rights of individuals with disabilities, there are several sub-sections that apply to specific areas.

Section 504

The federal legislative act that protects against discrimination in regards to education and ensures that a child with a disability has equal access to education and extracurricular activities. It specifically applies to entities that receive federal funds and requires that schools "…afford students with disabilities with equal opportunities 'to obtain the same result, to gain the same benefit, or to reach the same level of achievement' as students without disabilities."

The main difference between Section 504 and the ADA is that 504 applies only to entities that receive federal fund. The ADA covers the spectrum of both privately owned and government funded entities.

To learn more about Section 504:

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)

A four-part legislation that enables funding and mandates that students with disabilities are afforded free and appropriate public education (FAPE). IDEA also requires that accommodations are "…tailored to their individual needs and special education is provided in the least restrictive environment…"

According the American Psychological Association, "… Prior to IDEA, over 4 million children with disabilities were denied appropriate access to public education. Many children were denied entry into public school altogether, while others were placed in segregated classrooms, or in regular classrooms without adequate support for their special needs."

To learn more about IDEA:

Web Accessibility

If someone is not able to access a website, then they are not able to effectively communicate, and this takes away their equal right to access the information they need. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:

"The Web is an important medium for receiving information as well as for providing information and interacting with society. Therefore, it is essential that the Web is accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities…"

This impacts an individual's access to:

  • Education (increasingly education is online or partly online)
  • Employment (almost all job boards, applications, training, and onboarding "new hire" paperwork is done entirely online)
  • Government (most municipalities have applications for benefits and monthly statements are all accessed online)
  • Financial (banking statements, online banking, insurance, healthcare services)

When the ADA was passed in 1990, the internet was in its infancy therefore not taken into consideration; however, since that time, the ADA legislation has been reviewed and the scope is being expanded to include web accessibility.

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the federal law that specifically pertains to federal websites and entities that have any federal contracts. It states that "…all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities."

On January 18, 2017 the United States Access Board published the final ruling and March 20, 2017, the landmark Section 508 Refresh became effective. The refresh includes refurbished guidelines that take into consideration, "… market trends and innovations, such as the convergence of technologies…the ever-changing technologies covered and continue to meet the access needs of people with disabilities…” (Sachin Pavithran, Chair of the Board’s ICT ad hoc committee)

In addition, these newly revised requirements adapt similarly with the European Commission and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in an effort to produce a more universal standard for web content and ICT.

How 508 Affects Organizations

  • It mandates that Federal agencies and entities doing business with these agencies or any federal contracts must comply with new accessibility rules under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communication Act.
  • Provides a one year timeline (January 18, 2018) for all federal websites and business that have any federal contracts to become compliant.
  • Even if a business or organization does not work directly with a Federal agency, it is still within an entity's best interest to adhere to the guidelines as the long term initiative is to align directly with WCAG and extend inevitably to other organizations after the 2018 deadline.

In the U.S., accessibility experts believe that the refresh will pave the way for the eventuality that all businesses will need to be WCAG compliance.

To learn more about CVAA:
United States Access Board:


The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the set of guiding principles set forth by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These global standards have been adopted by more than 25 countries or jurisdictions and provide direction for creating accessible content and "user agents", such as "…mobile devices media players, readers and other applications that render web content…"

While not a legal standard in and of itself, WCAG has been used as the baseline measure for many accessibility laws, including Section 508 in the US. Thus, understanding and adhering to WCAG principles is vital when working with accessibility compliance and usability.

To learn more about WCAG and W3C: