Volume VIII Number 2, September 2002

Section 508 Goes To The Library: Complying With Federal Legal Standards To Produce Accessible Electronic And Information Technology In Libraries

Paul T. Jaeger, J.D., M.Ed.
Information Use Management and Policy Institute
School of Information Studies
Florida State University

"Democracy does not put an end to injustice, but it does establish the conditions that allow us to aspire to achieve effective justice, not merely as an abstract ideal, but as a value present in the everyday life of citizens" (Cardoso, 2001, p. 10).


As electronic and information technologies, from e-mail to search engines, have become a greater part of the everyday search for information, the provision of these technologies in a format accessible to individuals with disabilities has become of tremendous importance. Libraries, in their role of making information available to all users, must work to ensure that patrons with disabilities have equal access to electronic and information technologies. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act establishes accessibility standards for Federal government electronic and information technology to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities (29 U.S.C.A. § 794d). The law first took effect in June of 2001. Though the law directly applies to Federal government agencies, the requirements also apply to recipients of Federal funds through the Assistive Technology Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 3001). Funds from the Assistive Technology Act (AT Act) are distributed to the state governments and then passed on by the state government to various publicly supported organizations, including libraries. Any library that receives such funds from its state government could be required to comply with the accessibility standards of the law. Even beyond the possibility that libraries will be held to these legal standards, there are immensely important ethical reasons for libraries to comply with Section 508 standards. The legal standards that are established by Section 508 provide straightforward guidelines that libraries can follow to ensure that electronic and information technologies are accessible to patrons with disabilities.

This article will discuss the importance of accessibility to electronic and information technologies in libraries. The context and requirements of Section 508, including which organizations the law applies to, will be discussed, with emphasis given to its application to libraries. The article will outline the roles and requirements of other Federal laws and organizations relevant to electronic and information technology accessibility. Potential problems that must be considered in the implementation of Section 508 standards will be examined. Finally, this article will discuss the methods by which libraries can adopt the standards of Section 508 to implement accessibility.


54 million Americans have some form of disability. Over the course of the history of the United States, individuals with disabilities have faced a numbing array of discriminatory practices, from eugenics to segregation (Jaeger & Bowman, 2002; Fleischer & Zames, 2001; Shapiro, 1993; Winzer, 1993). Beginning in the 1970s, civil rights laws were finally passed to guarantee equality and justice to individuals with disabilities, achieving justice in many areas of the everyday lives of individuals with disabilities. However, bringing equality into the everyday lives of individuals with disabilities is still an on-going challenge. The drive to bring equality to electronic and information technologies by making them accessible has only just begun in earnest with the implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is intended to create standards for accessibility to the electronic and information technology (EIT) used by the Federal government and by recipients of Federal funding through the AT Act. The passage of Section 508 has “sent ripples throughout all levels of government,” changing the discussion from “a whisper of fear over what accessibility might cost” to “ a clear statement that it must be accomplished because it is, quite simply, the right thing to do” (Patterson, 2002, p. 8-10).

Without the requirements of Section 508, much EIT, from Web sites to computer terminals, would remain inaccessible to individuals with many types of disabilities. Section 508, and the areas it addresses, should be of particular interest to libraries. First, as libraries employ a great deal of EIT to provide services to users, ensuring access to all these technologies should be high priority in order to provide equal service to all patrons. Second, public libraries may be held accountable to the standards of Section 508 and likely also have obligations under other Federal laws to provide accessible EIT. In order to fulfill their obligations as sources of information to the entire public and to avoid claims of discrimination or lawsuits, libraries should be working to comply with the accessibility standards established by Section 508.

It has been asserted that "[i]nformation is power, and a healthy democracy must guarantee access to this information and power equally for all of its citizens" (Hawthorne, Denge, & Coombs, 1997). This statement is as true about information available in electronic format as it is about information available in print format. The reasons for making information accessible include ethical reasons, economic reasons, legal reasons, and reasons of self-interest as anyone may eventually need accommodations (Coombs, 2000). Compliance with the standards of Section 508 is the key to guaranteeing access to information for individuals with disabilities.

Many library mission statements include language about providing equal access and services to all patrons, reflecting core values of the profession. However, accessibility in libraries, especially to EIT, is often sadly lacking. In fact, many libraries lack a formulated accommodation plan of any kind. The standards of Section 508 could serve as a model for an accommodation plan to ensure equal access to EIT in a library. Doing so would produce two significant benefits. The library would be providing equal access to patrons and staff members with disabilities and would be avoiding any potential legal actions that might result from failure to comply with Section 508.

The implementation of Section 508 standards by the Federal government has encouraged many state and local governments to become Section 508 compliant to provide fair access and to head off any future discrimination claims. A number of states, such as Connecticut, Missouri, New York, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin established accessibility guidelines for EIT before the Federal government passed Section 508 (Patterson, 2002). A significant number of other state and local governments have used Section 508 as an inspiration to “look at accessibility as a genuine opportunity to bring government resources and services to an increasing number of people” (Patterson, 2002, p. 10). Many local government agencies, looking to avoid accessibility problems before they start, “are getting ahead of the game by making their online information and services available in universally accessible formats” (Williams, 2001, p. 12). Just as state and local governments, as recipients of AT Act funds, should work toward compliance with Section 508, most libraries should as well.

It is possible that any library that receives funding through the AT Act (formerly known as the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act) may be held to the standards of Section 508. Whether the need is established by a patron, the courts, or the library staff, these libraries may have to become compliant with Section 508 accessibility standards. In fact, depending on how the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq.) is interpreted, libraries could be seen as having to be completely accessible before the passage of Section 508. Unequal access to information is, at least in principle, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability by places of public accommodation. Unequal access to information can certainly be viewed as discrimination against individuals with disabilities and public libraries are places of public accommodation. Section 508, with its specific focus on equal access to EIT, provides further emphasis on the legal mandate of equal access to technology. As such, libraries should be making their Web sites and other EIT compliant with Section 508 to avoid future claims of discrimination or lawsuits.

Even beyond the legal arguments, there are numerous reasons why libraries should be actively seeking to become Section 508 compliant. Unequal access is also a violation of the general notions of equality and justice that are inherent in a democratic society and in the concept of public libraries. Libraries should be aggressively pursuing compliance with accessibility standards on moral and ethical grounds. “It’s the right thing to do. This out-weighs issues of cost, nationality, and adoption time” (Guenther, 2002, p. 72). The whole point of libraries is to make information available to as many people as possible. If information in a library is inaccessible to any group of people, especially a group of 54 million Americans, the library is failing in the basic mission of making information available. Libraries should embrace the notion that “information-rich Web sites like those created by libraries must err on the side of usability” for all (Hudson, 2002, p. 20).

The American Library Association has recognized the need to better serve patrons with disabilities. The Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy confirms the vital role of libraries in the lives of individuals with disabilities and encourages libraries to facilitate full participation of individuals with disabilities (ALA, 2001). A library that is accessible is not only complying with legal and moral imperatives, it is also following ALA policy guidelines.

Accessible EIT can also bring tremendous returns to a library. If a library is accessible to patrons with disabilities, it will quickly get a positive reputation in the disability community. The visibility of the library and the traffic in the library will increase as more patrons with disabilities embrace the library. Accessibility of library resources will also increase community goodwill and support from the disability community. Further, the presence of accessible technologies will get the attention of people who do not have disabilities, causing them to be more aware of disability-related issues and, hopefully, actively supportive of the acquisition and provision of accessible technologies. These positive results will lead to an increase in patronage and usage of the library and its resources. Making a library and its EIT accessible can lead to better community relations, more patrons, increased traffic and usage of materials, and visibility for the library.

The Section 508 standards serve to make accessibility more achievable. Section 508 standards “outline a clear blueprint for creating more user-friendly sites” and can help “argue for resources, create good policy, and set guiding principles” for new technologies (Hudson, 2002, p. 19). Complying with Section 508 standards is a simple way to become accessible. The standards are also fairly easy and inexpensive to apply for Web sites that are kept simple and follow established usability standards, like those available at the Usability.Gov Web site (www.usability.gov). “Good coding is the best way to make Web sites widely accessible to all” (Williams, 2001, p. 12). A well-designed Web site will be able to be continually improved to advance accessibility.

Accessible EIT devices are also becoming more commonplace and readily available for purchase. Some large EIT vendors, such as Sun Microsystems, Microsoft Corp., Lotus Development Corp., and IBM Corp., have been designing, producing, and marketing fully accessible versions of their products (Johnson, 2000). Many of these technology-based companies and private organizations have established policies and standards to ensure accessibility in their products and services (Kennard & Lyle, 2001). A wealth of information on accessible products, the development of accessible products, and vendors of accessible products can be found as the University of Wisconsin’s Trace Center Web site (www.trace.wisc.edu).


Accessibility, the physical or intellectual access to an object, is of vital importance to individuals with disabilities. A disability alters how an individual approaches and deals with any object. Accessibility can be the access to a building, to a service, to a document, or to a Web site. Section 508 is the first Federal law that attempts to address accessibility in terms of EIT, requiring accessibility for Federal government agencies, vendors to the Federal government, and recipients of AT Act funds. The Section 508 regulations “have the potential for being as important for assuring access to the information age as the Architectural Barriers Act [was] for assuring access to the constructed environment for people with disabilities” (Wakefield, 1998).

III.A. The Section 508 Mandate

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first major Federal law offering legal rights to individuals with disabilities (29 U.S.C.A. § 701 et seq). The Rehabilitation Act established the requirements for the Federal government and any entity receiving Federal funds to provide equal treatment and access to individuals with disabilities. In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act to protect the rights of the disabled from discrimination in many contexts. The Rehabilitation Act protects anyone who “(i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment” (34 C.F.R. § 104.3(j)). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifies: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (29 U.S.C.A. § 794).

The Rehabilitation Act establishes and protects the basic rights of individuals with disabilities to fair and equal treatment, including physical and intellectual accessibility. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, education technology that is purchased using Federal funds must be accessible to all students. This provision has broad implications, as much education technology purchased by state and local educational authorities is at least partially funded by Federal monies. However, as Section 504 was written well before the Internet was used as an education tool, it includes no specific Web guidelines or language.

The amendments to the Rehabilitation Act that are known as Section 508 were passed in 1998 and became effective June 21, 2001. Section 508 was created in reaction to the fact that individuals with physical and mental disabilities were encountering dramatic accessibility issues with EIT. The Act requires that Federal employees with disabilities “have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities” (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(A)(i)). The Act also requires members of the public with disabilities “seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data” by other members of the public (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(A)(ii)).

Section 508 compels the organizations it covers to comply with the accessibility guidelines and standards issued by the Access Board (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(2)). Section 508 also prohibits covered entities from “developing, procuring, maintaining, or using” non-compliant EIT (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(A-B)). Accessible technology should be purchased so long as the expense or difficulty of the acquisition does not create an undue burden on the agency (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(A-B)). Undue burden is a concept that is relevant to all disability laws, but, like many legal concepts, is relative to the situation. The analysis of whether an action is an undue burden generally includes the consideration of costs, financial resources available, benefits produced, safety concerns, and overall impact. There are also exceptions for national security and intelligence systems and the lack of commercially available products (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(5)). Under Section 508, covered entities are not required to retrofit technology that predates the implementation of the law.

Section 508 establishes accessibility requirements for software applications, operating systems, web-based information and applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, self-contained or closed products, desktop computers, and portable computers (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(6)). These accessibility requirements are only mandated where necessary. For example, Section 508 does not require that a computer workstation used exclusively by an employee who needs no accommodations be fitted with numerous accessibility technologies.

III.B. Section 508 Standards

The Access Board and Center for Information Technology Access (CITA) have responsibility for overseeing the Federal implementation of Section 508. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the Access Board, is an independent Federal agency devoted to overseeing accessibility in government (Access Board, 2002). The Access Board is the primary Federal agency for creating accessibility standards, including the standards for Section 508. It is a coordinating body between agencies, meant to represent the general public. The Access Board establishes design criteria for accessibility, and develops and maintains accessibility requirements for physical environment, transportation, telecommunications equipment, and EIT for Federal agencies. These standards and guidelines may not create an undue burden either by being too difficult or too expensive. It provides technical assistance and training on guidelines and standards. It also researches accessibility technology and standards. The Access Board investigates and enforces accessibility standards for Federally-funded facilities, including Federal facilities and programs, private or commercial facilities or programs receiving Federal funding, state and local governments, transportation or public transit, housing facilities, and telecommunications.

The General Services Administration includes the Center for Information Technology Access (CITA), which serves as the Federal government’s principle advocate and coordinator to make government information technology accessible to individuals with disabilities. CITA defines its purpose as “to be the recognized government-wide policy resource for information on the accessibility of electronic and information technology, and in the use of assitive technologies” (CITA, 2002). CITA has responsibilities to educate Federal employees about the requirements of Section 508 and to help create the infrastructure to support Section 508 technologies. To accomplish these goals, CITA is creating forums to facilitate the exchange of ideas between technology vendors, individuals with disabilities, advocacy groups, researchers, and those charged with Section 508 compliance (Porteus, 2002). CITA also is offering showcases of government accessibility efforts and new accessibility technologies (Porteus, 2002).

III.C. The Application of Section 508

According to the text of the statute itself, Section 508 does not apply directly to anything but Federal government agencies and vendors who serve the Federal government. However, as noted earlier in this paper, organizations and state agencies that receive Federal funding under the AT Act should comply with Section 508 because of the requirements of the Assistive Technology Act. The Assistive Technology Act of 1998 is a grant program through the Department of Education to provide Federal funds for state programs that provide assistive technology to individuals with disabilities. This act incorporates its predecessor law, the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act. The AT Act has a significant role in accessibility to EIT, as all funds distributed through the program must be used for technologies that comply with the requirements of Section 508. The Department of Education has summarized the matter by noting that “states which receive Federal funds” under the AT Act must “comply with Section 508” (Department of Education, 2002). All of the states must comply with Section 508, “along with recipients of federal funds passed along” by the states (Boyer, 2000, p. 28). For most libraries receiving public funding, there is a significant chance they benefit from AT Act funding provided through a state government.

Failure to comply with the standards of Section 508 makes the agency or organization vulnerable to lawsuit (29 U.S.C. § 794d(f)). An individual may file a complaint with the specific agency or organization using the same process as is available under the Rehabilitation Act for complaints of discrimination. After administrative remedies have been exhausted, a civil rights action may be filed. Only injunctive and declaratory relief (court orders for an organization to comply with a law) and attorney’s fees are available for such claims. Monetary damages, compensatory or punitive, are virtually impossible in such actions as Congress never waived sovereign immunity for such damages in Rehabilitation Act claims.

III.D. The Impact and Implementation of Section 508

This law has the potential to greatly improve accessibility to EIT for individuals with disabilities. Federal employees with disabilities will have much greater accessibility to technology at work. This will make the Federal government, according to President Bush, “a better employer” to the 120,000 individuals with disabilities who work for the United States government (quoted in Access Board, 2002). Members of the public with disabilities will have much greater accessibility to government information and services related to technology. According to President Bush, this will allow “more opportunities for people of all abilities to access government information” (quoted in Access Board, 2002). All individuals with disabilities will benefit by increased accessibility to the EIT of all recipients of Federal funds, directly or indirectly, from Federal government grants through the AT Act, which includes state and local government and many public entities, such as libraries. However, individuals with disabilities will only receive these benefits if the law is implemented consistently and effectively.

Previous Federal disability laws have dealt with accessibility primarily in terms of physical access, such as equal access to building and public accommodations, and intellectual access to texts and print documents. However, as technology has grown more sophisticated, “many changes that generally made it easier for non-disabled people to use computers often created barriers for people with disabilities” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 1). Unlike previous laws addressing disability and accessibility, Section 508 is not centered on defining who is disabled; instead, Section 508 focuses on defining the ways in which technology must be accessible. Prior to the passage of Section 508, Federal agencies and recipients of Federal technology funds “did not focus on the extent to which their mainstream technology was accessible to persons with disabilities” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 1). This law, however, will help Federal agencies and recipients of Federal technology grants to “ensure the technologies they procure are accessible” (Access Board, 2002).

Section 508 involves EIT, which is the technology that comprises electronic or information systems, which includes computer systems, Web sites, information kiosks, telecommunications devices, and a host of other technologies. For individuals with disabilities, assistive devices that promote accessibility are a very important aspect of EIT. The acquisition of EIT that promotes accessibility is essential to the proper implementation of Section 508.

Section 508 was passed as part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, and implementation of the law has only just begun. The National Council on Disability is currently engaged in a large-scale assessment of the adoption of Section 508 standards (National Council on Disability, 2001a). At the end of 2001, the state of implementation of Section 508 was described as “[t]he June 21, 2001 compliance deadline has come and gone” and there remains “some confusion surrounding Section 508’s requirements” (McLawhorn, 2001, p. 99). It is worth noting that the Federal government does not have a stellar record of quickly and effectively implementing disability rights legislation that it passes. For example, the Rehabilitation Act was originally passed in 1973, but it was not implemented until four years and three presidential administrations later (Jaeger & Bowman, 2002). It is too soon to gauge or measure the ultimate impact of Section 508 on accessibility to Web sites, at the Federal level or at other levels. However, the law itself can be analyzed in terms of its content, requirements, potential problems, and potential benefits, both in general and in specific terms of libraries.

III.E. The Necessity of Section 508

Individuals with disabilities, as a population, are among the poorest Americans and are some of the least likely to own a computer. Individuals with disabilities have “far lower incomes than other citizens” (National Council on Disability, 2001b, p. 103). Studies have shown that “computer usage and Internet access for people with disabilities to be half that of people without disabilities” (Access Board, 2002). The Department of Justice has noted that advances in computer technology often result in “barriers for people with disabilities” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 1). Even if Web sites and other EIT are made completely accessible, a significant percentage of individuals with disabilities do not have access to a computer, and therefore have no chance of ever reaching fully accessible Web sites except through public institutions, such as libraries.

Individuals with disabilities are only half as likely to have Internet access as non-disabled individuals (21.6% versus 42.1%) (Department of Commerce, 2000). Further, the number of individuals who have never even used a computer is two and a half times greater than the number of non-disabled individuals who have never used a computer (60% versus 25%) (Department of Commerce, 2000). This difference is not simply a problem in the United States, as the Commission of the European Communities has identified a “disability gap” to EIT in European Union member states (European Union, 2001, p. 11-12).

III.F. Libraries and Legal Obligations under Section 508

The Section 508 requirements directly apply to the Federal government and the more than 11,000 vendors that serve the Federal government. Further, Section 508 applies to organizations and state agencies that receive Federal funding under the AT Act. The 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the northern Mariana Islands all receive funding and grants under the AT Act (Boyer, 2000). As a result, state government compliance with Section 508 is indirectly mandated. Further, any recipient of these monies from a state government is bound by the Section 508 standards as well. AT Act monies from state governments are likely a part of the funding of many public libraries, public school libraries, and public university libraries. As a result, the requirements of Section 508 are of utmost importance to libraries and information service professionals.

The extent to which Section 508 standards will be enforced against libraries and other educational institutions receiving AT Act funding through the state governments is not entirely clear. Until the impact of Section 508 on indirect recipients of AT Act funds is tested in court, it is likely to remain a contentious and unresolved issue. Some commentators have noted the unresolved nature of the issue (Schmentzke, 2001), but others have noted specific areas that will likely be held to Section 508 standards (Guenther, 2002). Boyer (2000), however, asserts that “all public libraries will need to comply with Section 508’s requirements for accessibility of information technologies for both their patrons and their employees” (p. 28). Based on the relevant laws and regulations, it appears that Boyer’s statement is correct. Unless a Federal court holds to the contrary, it seems to be in the best interest of libraries serving the public to comply with the mandates and standards of Section 508.

III.G. Sources of Confusion and Potential Problems with Section 508 Standards

Despite the significant benefits that can come from the effective and widespread implementation of the Section 508 standards, there are areas that could pose potential problems as well. The success of Section 508 will depend on how thoroughly it is implemented. In the summer of 2001, when Section 508 compliance was to be effective, an independent survey of accessibility of national government Web sites throughout the world found the U.S. government to have the highest percentage of accessible Web sites (West, 2001; World Markets Research Centre, 2001, p. 5). However, the percentage of accessible Web sites for the U.S. government was a miserly 37% (West, 2001; World Markets Research Centre, 2001, p. 5). Another study, issued in August 2002, found that only 13.5% of the 148 Federal Web sites studied met the accessibility standards of Section 508 (Stowers, 2002, p. 19).

As a result of Section 508, the Federal government “is spending an enormous amount of money and time” to make EIT accessible (Kennard & Lyle, 2001, p. 13). The estimates for modifying all Federal electronic and information technology run anywhere between $85 million to $691 million dollars (Johnson, 2000). One writer described Section 508 as “a mini-Y2K” for some information technology service firms, as it has the potential to create so much business from government agencies seeking compliance (Kahn, 2001, p. 12).

Section 508 does not apply if the cost would place an undue burden on an agency or organization (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(B)). However, what constitutes an undue burden is not defined in the statute. The potential for difficulty exists in the interpretation of this term. It could give an organization, which does not want to comply, the opportunity to claim that the acquisition of any accessibility technology was an undue burden. Certain Federal government agencies have, in the past, acted very strangely to avoid providing access to individuals with disabilities (Jaeger & Bowman, 2002). Even a well-meaning organization, however, will likely struggle with trying to create a viable meaning for the term. When assessing the burden of a cost, it is worth considering the long-term costs of leaving information or services inaccessible. As a National Council on Disability report notes, “the costs of doing nothing may be greater than the costs of any reasonably foreseeable measures” (National Council on Disability, 2001b, p. 28).
In large part, the variances in cost estimations derive from confusion over what exactly is covered by Section 508 and how it should be implemented. Some people mistakenly have assumed that highly expensive and individualized assistive technologies, such as screen readers, need to be embedded in all computers, when all that needs to be done is make the software on those computers accessible to individuals using screen readers (Lais, 2000). However, in some cases, the cost of accessibility can be very high. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Envirofacts Web site required $125,000 in modifications to become compliant with Section 508 (Thibodeau, 2001). To avoid problems under the statute, some Federal Web sites have been suspended temporarily in order to make accommodations or shut down permanently to avoid having to comply (McLawhorn, 2001). Some agencies have only made their most popular Web pages accessible, while other agencies have argued against compliance with Section 508 as a waste of limited money, talent, and time (McLawhorn, 2001). Still other agencies appear to have modified Web sites in ways that evidence misunderstanding of the law and its requirements (Robb, 2001).

In spite of these types of problems, the implementation of accessible EIT can often result in significant savings when applied properly. In Washington State, the Washington Video Relay Service employs computer video cameras to more efficiently and effectively provide translation services for speakers of American Sign Language, creating cost reductions for the state and for the users of the service (Patterson, 2002).
Section 508, despite all of the positive impact it could achieve, has faced harsh criticism from some commentators, based significantly on the confusion over the scope of the law. For example, one critic curiously argued that Section 508 would take away rights of non-disabled individuals by limiting available content and that the requirements of Section 508 would be enforced upon all providers of information in any format, including local newspapers (Powell, 1999).

As more Web sites are brought into compliance with Section 508, new sources of confusion will likely appear. For example, a future difficulty may arise from the need for a site or a technology to be usable in order to be accessible. A Web site or a technology is usable when it “is easy to use to the extent that it effectively performs the task for which it is being used” (Usability First, 2002). If a Web site or other technological item is accessible, an individual with a disability can use it as well as non-disabled individuals. However, if a site is not usable in that it is difficult to use or ineffective, then improvements in accessibility will not be worth much. A site with usability problems will be unusable to all individuals visiting the site (Anderson, 2002). In order to make a site or a technology accessible, it has to be usable.


In order to understand fully the legal role and significance of accessibility to EIT, it is important to be familiar with the major disability laws and government organizations related (beyond those already discussed in this paper) to the disability laws in the United States. An overview of other laws also provides a context for understanding Section 508, while demonstrating the uniqueness and importance of Section 508. Together, these laws demonstrate the depth of the legal mandate for access.

The Federal government has passed a number of disability rights laws that have an accessibility component. These laws work together to produce a relatively comprehensive set of rights and protections for individuals with disabilities. There are other disability rights laws, but the following are the most related to issues of accessibility and the most relevant to the consideration of accessibility to EIT.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandates physical accessibility in the construction of new buildings and modification of or reconstruction of buildings built after 1968 (42 U.S.C.A. § 4151 et seq.). The Act mandates that constructed buildings be built or altered to allow individuals with physical disabilities to be able to have equal access to all areas and services of the structure. This Act established the mandate of equal access for individuals with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (originally the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1974) mandates the public education of all school- age individuals with disabilities (20 U.S.C.A. § 1400 et seq.). The Act, known as IDEA, guarantees a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities through their graduation from high school. Part of this set of protections is equal access to the benefits of public schooling. School materials and facilities, including textbooks, computers, and buildings, must be accessible to students with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity on employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation (42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq.). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities by various private and public institutions, including state governments, and provides a mechanism for legal protection and remedies. Title II of the ADA instructs the instrumentalities of local and state governments that “no qualified individual with a disability shall . . . be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity” (42 U.S.C.A. § 12132). The Rehabilitation Act provides those same protections for Federal agencies and any agency receiving federal assistance. A major part of the ADA is the mandate of accessibility. The ADA has been determined to protect access to and use of such disparate public entities as universities (Darian v. University of Massachusetts Boston, 1987), courts (People v. Caldwell, 1995), and prisons (Saunders v. Horn, 1996).

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination by private organizations providing public accommodations, which traditionally has included hotels, restaurants, offices, housing, and shopping centers. There is controversy whether Web sites and Internet services are public accommodations under the meaning of the ADA (Konkright, 2001; Schloss, 2001; Talyor, 2001; Bick, 2000). The Department of Justice has interpreted the ADA to apply to the Internet (National Council on Disability, 2001b). The issue has been raised in a number of cases, but it has not yet been decided in the courts because the cases raising the issue have either settled before judgment or been decided on other grounds (Konkright, 2001; Taylor, 2001; Bick, 2000). It is worth noting that the Internet was not an ever-present concept in 1990 when the ADA was passed. One commentator has noted that when the ADA was written, “cyberspace belonged to the realm of science fiction” (Bick, 2000, p. 225). Had the Internet been a commonplace tool when the ADA was created, it seems likely that Web sites and Internet services would have been included in the list of specified public accommodations.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires makers and providers of telecommunications equipment and services to ensure products are accessible (47 U.S.C.A. § 225). This law has implications for both physical and intellectual accessibility, and may have a significant impact on what technology is available and useable by Federal agencies attempting to provide accessibility to Federal Web sites.
Taken as a whole, these major disability laws created a wide-ranging mandate for accessibility for individuals with disabilities. However, none, until the passage of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, directly addressed the issue of Internet or Web site accessibility. IDEA, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act all have requirements of accessibility based in the provision of adaptive technology and alternate formats for intellectual accessibility. They are all also based on the principle mandating equal access for individuals with disabilities.

The National Council on Disability (http://www.ncd.gov) is the independent government organization that has a disability advocacy stance. It reports on the status of disability issues in the government and offers evaluations of programs, services, and legislation. It also proposes legislation; for example, the NCD proposed the basic framework for the legislation that became the Americans with Disabilities Act. The NCD has been very active in the promotion of accessibility, with its largest effort being a report entitled The Accessible Future, issued in June 2001. This report is primarily devoted to accessibility issues the NCD believes should be addressed by the Federal government (National Council on Disability, 2001b).

The Department of Education (http://www.ed.gov/index.jsp) has a role in ensuring compliance with disability laws in schools. IDEA, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act have provisions that create accessibility requirements in all public schools and all schools that receive Federal funds. As a result, the Department of Education has a role in ensuring the mandates of these laws are followed. Though it does not often take major actions, the Department of Education has considerable power when it does. In 2000, there was concern the Department of Education would withhold the IDEA funds for the state of New York because of flaws in its education policies for students with disabilities; had the Federal government done so, New York State would have lost $335 million (Fleischer & Zames, 2001, p. 194-95).

The Department of Justice (http://www.usdoj.gov) investigates and evaluates compliance with Federal laws regarding disability. The Department of Justice does not often intercede in disability issues (McLawhorn, 2001). The DOJ itself is quick to note that it “is not charged with enforcing Section 508” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 2). The Department of Justice does play a more significant role by doing investigations into compliance with disability laws by the Federal government itself. Section 508 requires that the Attorney General report to the President on accessibility matters related to Section 508. As part of this obligation, the Department of Justice issued the report Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility, which provides a detailed analysis of the accessibility of Federal EIT (Department of Justice, 2001).


In spite of any potential problems and sources of confusion with Section 508, libraries must work to provide accessible EIT for ethical and legal reasons. Libraries should view increasing access for patrons with disabilities as “an exciting challenge rather than a threat or a burden” (Hawthorne, Denge, & Coombs, 1997). Ideas on how to improve accessibility to EIT are not hard to find and are often easy to implement. CITA many other Federal government Web sites contain a great deal of useful information about implementing Section 508. The actual standards and guidelines for compliance with Section 508 can be found at the Section 508 and Access Board Web sites. Numerous articles provide ideas, suggestions, and resources for increasing accessibility to EIT in order to comply with Section 508 (Guenther, 2002; Hudson, 2002; Patterson, 2002; Foster, 2001; McLawhorn, 2001; Williams, 2001; Boyer, 2000).

A plethora of Web sites offer information about standards, obligations, developments, and guidance related to the accessibility of EIT. Theses sites include:

Federal Government Organizations
Access Board: <http://www.access-board.gov>
Center for Information Technology Accommodation: <http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/content/offerings_content.jsp?contentOID=22804&contentType=1004&PMKC=1&S=1>.
Disability Direct: <http://www.disabilitydirect.gov>.
National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitative Research: <http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/NIDRR/>.
Section 508: <http://www.section508.gov>
Usability: <http://www.usability.gov>

Federal Agency Disability Programs
Department of Agriculture: Technology Accessible Target Center: <http://www.usda.gov/oo/target.htm>.
Department of Defense: Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program: <http://www.tricare.osd.mil/cap>.
Department of Education: Assistive Technology Program: <http://www.ed.gov/index.jsp>.
Department of Veterans Affairs: Adaptive Training Program: <http://www.va.gov/oirm/itss/itc/brochsb.htm>.
Department of Veterans Affairs, Rehabilitation Research, and Development Services: <http://www.vard.org>.
Federal Communications Commission: Disabilities Issues Task Force: <http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/dro>.
General Services Administration: Federal Relay Service: <http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/content/offerings_content.jsp?contentOID=22782&contentType=1004>

Other Organizations
Archimedes Project at Stanford University: <http://www-csli.stanford.edu/arch/arch.html>
Center for Applied Special Technology (“Bobby-approved”): <http://www.cast.org>
Equal Access to Software and Information: <http://www.rit.edu/~easi>.
Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin: <http://www.trace.wisc.edu>
Usableweb: <http://www.usableweb.com>
Usability First: <http://www.usabilityfirst.com>.
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): <http://www.w3c.org>

Implementing accessibility in a library should not be viewed as a necessarily complex and costly affair. Internet and Web site services, when developed and updated, should comply with principles of accessibility and usability. New EIT, when acquired, should be accessible. Current technologies should be modified to be accessible where necessary. Vendors should be informed that only accessible services and technologies are acceptable. Individuals with disabilities on the library staff or in the community that the library serves should be consulted for simple steps to take to improve accessibility. Actions of this sort will result in increased usage of and appreciation of the library, as well as help avoid claims of discrimination or lawsuits.

A library can also take a proactive stance to improve EIT accessibility beyond the particular library. Libraries can demand that vendors provide only accessible technologies. Libraries can take an active role working to help manufactures design accessible technologies that best serve the needs of libraries and patrons with disabilities. Libraries can also follow the example of CITA and hold discussion forums with patrons with disabilities, vendors, manufactures, researchers, scholars, and advocacy groups to work toward increasing accessibility.

Libraries should not assume that all costs and efforts associated with providing accessible EIT must be borne solely by the library. Grants from many sources may be available to a library working to increase accessibility. Depending on the actions being taken, funding support may be available from various Federal agencies, from state governments, from advocacy organizations, and from private and non-profit organizations. Other types of support may also be available in the form of technical support, guidance, or equipment.


There are numerous important reasons for a library to become compliant with the standards established by Section 508. Due to the indirect receipt of Federal monies through the AT Act, many libraries may be bound to comply with the requirements of Section 508. Based on the tenets of the ADA, libraries should have long ago given priority to creating and using EIT that is accessible. Even beyond the need to comply with the laws to avoid claims of discrimination or lawsuits, libraries should be working to have fully accessible EIT because libraries are intended to provide information to all, not just the non-disabled. Accessible EIT will produce numerous benefits to the library, from community goodwill to increased patronage to compliance with ALA policy. The standards and guidelines for implementing and complying with Section 508 are readily available and, in most cases, readily achievable. If your library has not taken steps to provide accessibility to its EIT for the 54 million Americans with disabilities, now is the time to do so and Section 508 provides the model for implementing EIT accessibility.


The author would like to thank Dr. Maria Chavez-Hernandez of the School of Information Studies at Florida State University for her insightful suggestions to improve this article.


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