Accessibility is a top priority of developers today, and with good reason. As Tim Berners-Lee, W3C director and inventor of the World Wide Web, has said: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” The irony is that as technology became more widespread, it started to become less accessible to people with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Justice explains why in this Civil Rights Division overview of technology accessibility statute. Early computers running MS-DOS were highly compatible with screen readers—but graphical user interfaces (GUI) were not. Using a mouse to “point and click” was not available to many people with disabilities. And, as graphics and audio became more advanced, the use of multimedia increased, increasing challenges for people with visual or hearing impairment.
Congress takes action
Recognizing this, Congress initially acted in 1986 by adding Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The addition called for “electronic equipment accessibility” and development of guidelines for federal procurement. But the 1986 law had little teeth, and in 1998, Congress added enforceability, compliance audits, and more to strengthen it.
By 2001, federal agencies had to ensure their electronic information (i.e., their websites) was accessible to individuals with disabilities. What’s more: Because the federal government has such far-reaching purchasing power, the strengthening of Section 508 increased emphasis on accessibility within the private sector, and “Section 508 compliance” has become an industry unto itself.
Although Section 508 does not apply to private websites, other laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, may, and litigation regarding web accessibility has increased in recent years. The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative offers a good starting point for familiarizing yourself with Section 508 and accessibility standards.
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