W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > w3c-wai-ig@w3.org > October to December 1999

NYT: U.S. Law Aims at Helping Disabled

From: Kelly Ford <kford@teleport.com>
Date: Thu, 11 Nov 1999 23:13:52 -0800
Message-Id: <>
To: (Recipient list suppressed)
 From the web page:


November 12, 1999

U.S. Law Aims at Helping Disabled


A lawsuit filed in federal district court in Boston last week is raising 
the question of whether privately operated Internet services must be 
accessible to the disabled.

But for Web sites put up by federal departments and agencies, the answer is 
already in and the answer is "yes," at least for Web pages produced after 
Aug. 7, 2000.

That is because of a law, signed by President Clinton last year, known as 
Section 508, for the part of the federal Rehabilitation Act in which it is 
found. Section 508 requires, among other things, that federal departments 
and agencies enable people with disabilities to have access to 
electronically disseminated information comparable to that enjoyed by the 
general public.

That means that federal agencies providing information to the public 
through Web sites must make sure the sites can be used by the blind, deaf 
and others, said Douglas A. Wakefield, technology access specialist at the 
Access Board, a small federal agency charged with drawing up standards to 
carry out the new law. Measures to make sites accessible might include 
assuring that important text can be read by a voice synthesizer for the 
blind and placing captions on audio material for the deaf, he said.

The statute, which also requires, with a few exceptions, that electronic 
information technology used by federal departments and agencies be 
accessible to federal employees with disabilities, is separate from a more 
publicized action involving the disabled: the suit filed last week against 
America Online by a major organization representing people who are blind. 
In that suit, the National Federation of the Blind is charging that the 
America Online service is largely unusable by the blind and that, under the 
public accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 
service must be accessible.

Disabled rights activists say Section 508 is important because it seeks to 
ensure that the disabled are not left behind as a wealth of federal 
government information, from weather data to federal income tax law 
changes, move online. "Why should the government do it?" said Lawrence A. 
Scadden, a senior program director for the National Science Foundation who 
also served as chairman of a Section 508 advisory committee to the Access 
Board. "The government is there to serve the people. We have passed the 
period in time where the federal government can decide who it serves and 
who it leaves out."

Not everyone expresses unreserved enthusiasm about the law. Some fear that 
eventually the law could be extended to cover non-government Web sites, 
creating another government regulation that could stifle a burgeoning 
medium, said Edward L. Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato 
Institute, a libertarian public policy research organization based in 
Washington, D.C. "All too often, standards that start off as government 
standards end up being foisted off on the private sector," he said.

As it stands now, however, the law applies to Web sites put up by about 105 
federal departments and agencies, ranging from the Social Security 
Administration to the Postal Service to the Department of Agriculture, 
Wakefield said. The law does not cover federal courts and Congressional 
offices. It also does not cover state governments or agencies, although 
there may be a limited exception for certain technology centers that are 
set up by states to assist the disabled and that receive U.S. Department of 
Education money, Wakefield said.


Exactly when all government Web pages must comply with the law is still 


As for businesses, the law covers the Web sites of federal contractors when 
those sites are created for federal department and agencies, Wakefield 
said. In other words, a Web design house that created a Web site for a 
federal department or agency under federal contract would have to make the 
site accessible to the disabled. The law would not, however, cover sites 
the design company created for private clients or even the company's own 
site, Wakefield said.

Proposed standards for how to carry out the law are being drawn up now by 
the Access Board, known formally as the Architectural and Transportation 
Barriers Compliance Board, and are expected to be issued for public comment 
by the end of the year.

Exactly when all government Web pages must comply with the law is still 
unclear, Wakefield said. What can be said with certainty is that new Web 
pages put up after August 7, 2000, when the law takes full effect, must 
fully meet accessibility standards, he said.

Wakefield estimates that many government Web sites -- perhaps 75 to 80 
percent -- are already "reasonably accessible." One reason is that they 
have a more pointedly information-sharing mission than commercial sites, 
which have a heavy marketing emphasis and, therefore, are filled with 
flashy images and sound that often foil accessibility devices, he said.

Still, Wakefield said, some government sites can be frustrating to the 
disabled. Sometimes, for example, documents are made available in PDF, a 
format that cannot be read by devices that translate text into voice or 
Braille and are used heavily by the blind. A simple alternative, he said, 
would be to provide documents in a second, more accessible format as well.

Wakefield and others expect the law to have significant effect on Web site 
accessibility. One reason is that there are a lot of federal Web sites. No 
one has an exact count, because agencies can run numerous sites. But 
Wakefield puts the number at "hundreds and hundreds."

Perhaps more important is that some of those sites get a lot of traffic, 
and that could influence users' expectations when they turn to 
non-government sites. The hope, Scadden said, is that government sites will 
be an online bully pulpit for cyber-accessibility. "These Web sites will 
become models for the private sector and individuals wanting to put up Web 
sites," he said.

As the person posting this material I respectfully request that it not be 
reposted to any email or other subscription services that charge a fee to 
receive it.  It has come to my attention that material I post is being 
redistributed on a few fee-based subscription services and this goes 
against my beliefs in internet discussions.  I hold no illusion that I 
created the original content but there is value in effectively locating 
this information and I strongly object to others who take the work of 
people like myself in gathering these materials and charging a fee for 
people to receive it.  Furthermore in some circumstances it is illegal to 
resell this information which a subscription-based email forwarding service 
is doing. 
Received on Friday, 12 November 1999 01:51:03 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.1 : Tuesday, 13 October 2015 16:21:06 UTC