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Laws, policies, & standards

Federal law

Federal civil rights laws, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and its 2008 Amendments, prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Section 504 applies to entities receiving financial assistance from the federal government, including colleges and universities; whereas the ADA applies to employers (Title I), public entities (Title II), and places of public accommodation (Title III), all of which apply to the University of Washington. Both Section 504 and the ADA require that the University provide equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities to participate in, and receive the benefits of, the educational program, and require that the University provide accommodation or modifications when necessary to ensure equal treatment.

When both of these laws were passed, IT had not yet attained the prevalence that it now has throughout society, including education, and neither law explicitly mentions IT accessibility. The Department of Education has issued guidance that states its long-standing nondiscrimination requirements mean when schools use technology to provide educational benefits, services, or opportunities, that technology must be fully accessible to students with disabilities. Although accommodations or modifications can also be made to ensure equal access, these accommodations must ensure that the benefits of the educational program are provided to these students in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.

On March 17, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education released a video message reminding educational institutions of their obligations under civil rights law to avoid discriminating against students with disabilities during this nationwide movement to online instruction. The full video is provided below.


Washington State Policy #188 “establishes the expectation for state agencies that people with disabilities have access to and use of information and data and be provided access to the same services and content that is available to persons without disabilities unless providing direct access is not possible due to technical or legal limitations.” This policy applies to all state agencies, including higher education institutions. The UW Policy – IT Accessibility and accompanying IT Accessibility Guidelines reinforce Policy #188.


The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 1.0 in 1998.  Subsequently, WCAG 2.0 was published in 2008, and WCAG 2.1 was published in 2018.

WCAG was written with websites and web applications in mind, but its principles extend to technology products and services that are not specifically web-based.

WCAG 2.1 is organized under four general principles:

  • Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

Within these four principles, WCAG 2.1 is organized into 13 guidelines, and within those, 78 success criteria, which are specific testable measures of whether an interface is accessible.  Each of the 78 success criteria is identified as either Level A, AA, or AAA, where Level A success criteria are arguably the most essential and are believed to be reasonably achievable by content creators.

There are:

  • 30 Level A success criteria
  • 20 Level AA success criteria
  • 28 Level AAA success criteria

Over many years, resolutions and settlements in response to legal complaints, as well as policy development informed by these resolutions and settlements, have established Level AA as the expected level of WCAG 2.x conformance for compliance with federal law. (See our selected list of Resolution agreements and lawsuits for details).

Washington State Policy #188 has adopted WCAG 2.1 at Level AA as the Minimum Accessibility Standard for state agencies, including higher education institutions. This is reinforced by the University of Washington IT Accessibility Guidelines.

UW-IT Accessible Technology Services has created an IT Accessibility Checklist to help the UW community to understand and implement WCAG 2.1 Level A and AA requirements.