What are legal issues associated with the design of accessible software?

Date Updated

Congress has responded to the need to increase access to products and services for people with disabilities by passing legislation in a range of areas, including education, employment, transportation, assistive technology, and electronic and information technology. Some pieces of legislation guarantee the civil rights of individuals with disabilities, others establish procurement requirements for specific agencies, and still others impose accessibility requirements on producers of products and providers of services. Some legislation is at the federal level, and some is at the state level. Some focuses on disability-related access issues exclusively; other legislation includes access issues as part of broader applications. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that programs and services that receive federal funding make those options available to individuals with disabilities and provide reasonable accommodations as necessary. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), along with its 2008 Amendments, is civil rights legislation that builds on and extends the reach of Section 504. It requires that public programs and services be accessible to people with disabilities and that they provide accessible "effective communication," regardless of what medium is typically used for that communication. For example, if a software program is used in a course at a postsecondary institution, then the essential content that it delivers should be made accessible to qualified students who have disabilities. The ADA also covers issues related to nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in employment decisions and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations, which may involve access to software and other electronic and information technology. Both the ADA and 504 are interpreted to mean that, when a covered entity uses software or other IT to deliver a service (e.g., deliver instruction) it should ensure that that service is accessible (directly or through accommodations) to individuals who will be using it (e.g., students). In 1986, Section 508 was added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as part of the Workforce Investment Act (1998). Section 508 requires that when federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, they ensure that the technology allows federal employees with disabilities to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to those accessed and used by federal employees who do not have disabilities, unless doing so would impose an undue burden on the agency. Section 508 also requires that members of the public with disabilities who seek information or services from a federal agency have access to and use of information and data that are comparable to those provided to members of the public who do not have disabilities.

For information specifically on implementation of Section 508, refer to Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards.

For an explanation of the guidelines for software applications and operating systems, refer to Access Board's standards for Software Applications and Operating Systems.