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The Importance of Section 508 and Web Site Accessibility

The Web, as many have argued, should be considered a public accommodation, accessible to everyone who wants to go there. Equal access to goods, services, education, entertainment, and social and recreational opportunities on the web -- as all public places in the United States -- should be accessible to all citizens.

The U.S. Department of Justice in 1996 held that the World Wide Web is in fact considered a place of public accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. An important aspect of the ADA is its requirement that places of "public accommodation" and the services available therein must be accessible.

In addition, the 1998 amendment of Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that the Web sites of federal agencies and all electronic and information technology (EIT) developed or purchased by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. So, if federal agencies use the internet, then it must be made accessible to people with disabilities; otherwise these agencies would be violating federal law, including the ADA. 

Section 508 and the ADA are not the same in terms of the scope and kinds of protections they afford. Section 508’s indirect effects extend beyond the federal arena, and it seems clear that such extension was one of the intentions behind the law. The ADA was written and adopted prior to the Internet becoming a standard feature of contemporary life, but as early as 1996 it was being interpreted by the U.S. Department of Justice as holding sway on the Web as well as in the realm of physical (bricks and mortar) locations.

Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet. Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well.

The Virtues of Accessibility

Technology is accessible if it can be used by people with disabilities as well as by those without. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) describes Web accessibility as the following:

"Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web."

The fact that technology is accessible does not mean that a person with a disability will necessarily be able to use it with as great a facility as will a person without that disability (e.g., in general, it will take less time to read words on a computer screen than it will to hear those words read by a screen reader). It simply means that both will have the opportunity to use it.

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