"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. [section] 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.
[section] 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.
II. LIBRARIES AND ACCESSIBILITY TO ELECTRONIC AND INFORMATION
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. [section] 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 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).
III. THE REQUIREMENTS OF SECTION 508
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"
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.
[section] 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. [section]
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. [section] 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.
[section] 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. [section]
Section 508 compels the organizations it covers to comply with the
accessibility guidelines and standards issued by the Access Board (29
U.S.C. [section] 794d(a)(2)). Section 508 also prohibits covered
entities from "developing, procuring, maintaining, or using"
non-compliant EIT (29 U.S.C. [section] 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.
[section] 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. [section]
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. [section] 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
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,
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,
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
Failure to comply with the standards of Section 508 makes the
agency or organization vulnerable to lawsuit (29 U.S.C. [section]
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
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
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
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.
Section 508 does not apply if the cost would place an undue burden
on an agency or organization (29 U.S.C. [section] 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.
IV. OTHER FEDERAL LAWS AND ORGANIZATIONS RELATED TO ACCESSIBILITY
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. [section]
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
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.
[section] 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. [section] 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. [section] 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. [section] 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).
V. METHODS FOR LIBRARIES TO ADOPT AND IMPLEMENT SECTION 508
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,
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: Center for
Information Technology Accommodation:
. Disability Direct: .
National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitative Research:
. Section 508:
Federal Agency Disability Programs
Department of Agriculture: Technology Accessible Target Center:
. Department of Defense:
Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program:
. Department of Education:
Assistive Technology Program: .
Department of Veterans Affairs: Adaptive Training Program:
. Department of
Veterans Affairs, Rehabilitation Research, and Development Services:
. Federal Communications Commission:
Disabilities Issues Task Force: .
General Services Administration: Federal Relay Service:
Archimedes Project at Stanford University:
Center for Applied
Special Technology ("Bobby-approved"):
Equal Access to Software and Information:
. Trace Research and Development Center
at the University of Wisconsin:
Usableweb: Usability First:
. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C):
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
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Information Use Management and Policy Institute
School of Information Studies
256 Louis Shores Building
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-2100
Phone: (850) 645-5683