Chapter 2: Overview of Law and Guidelines by Cynthia D. Waddell

Throughout history, disability law and public policy have reflected the norms of the many governments of the world and the varying socioeconomic environments. But one common thread in many societies has been the tendency to isolate and segregate persons with disabilities because of ignorance, neglect, superstition, or fear. Within this social environment, disability policy has evolved from the early social welfare approach, under the medical model of institutional care, to rehabilitation and education.

Because of the growing body of laws and public policies requiring the accessible design of products and websites, it's important for both policymakers and designers of this technology to be able to recognize the barriers that restrict access, and how to comply with these laws and policies. Just as security, cybercrime, privacy, and copyright are important issues for technologists, so too is accessible web design.

This chapter will introduce you to the emergence of global legal and policy issues for accessible web design standards. Since many jurisdictions now require adherence to standards of accessibility in web design, it is important for web designers to understand which technical standards to apply. This chapter includes the following:

Evolution of Public Policy

Since World War II, a new concept of integration has emerged along with a growing awareness of the capabilities of persons with disabilities. For example, the 1960s saw the United Nations reevaluating its policy and establishing both the foundation for the human rights of people with disabilities and the goal for their full participation in society.

Raising the alarm, the United Nations noted that more than half a billion persons were disabled worldwide and that approximately 80 percent of this population lived in developing countries. Declaring a "silent crisis," the United Nations said that the public policy issue "affects not only disabled persons themselves and their families, but also the economic and social development of entire societies, where a significant reservoir of human potential often goes untapped" (see "United Nations Commitment to Advancement of the Status of Persons with Disabilities").

The 1980s brought the formulation of the current World Programme of Action (WPA) concerning Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly in December 1982 (General Assembly resolution 37/52). The theme of the WPA is the equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities and the need to approach disability from a human rights perspective:

One of the most important concerns is accessibility: to new technologies, in particular information and communications technologies, as well as to the physical environment. The notion of "mainstreaming" will also be given prominence, that is, including a disability dimension in policy recommendations covering a wide spectrum of social and economic concerns.

United Nations Commitment to Advancement of the Status of Persons with Disabilities, (emphasis added).

As a result, Rule 5 of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities (General Assembly resolution 48/96 of 20 December 1993, annex) addresses "Accessibility" and measures to provide access to the physical environment, as well as access to information and communication (see

Other examples of public policy initiatives include the European Union activities discussed in Chapter 17, as well as various initiatives addressing the global digital divide—for example, see

What Is the Problem?

We have reached a significant crossroads, where our global policies, technologies, and purchasing choices will determine whether or not every person will benefit from, and directly participate in, the digital economy. The explosive growth of electronic commerce continues to erect new barriers to participation for people with disabilities, as well as for anyone without the latest technology.

We are now seeing a significant shift from using the Web to post essentially static information to using it for dynamic applications. The impact is systemic and reaches all sectors of our economy. Whether or not the web application is for e-government (communications, services, and Internet voting), e-commerce (shopping, kiosks, personal digital assistants, and product design), e-banking (online banking), or e-education (long-distance learning and research), a shift in methodology is in progress, affecting the delivery of communications and services. For a detailed discussion of this issue and the new barriers being created, see The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, and authored by Cynthia D. Waddell.

Information technology has evolved from command-line text interfaces, through graphical user interfaces, and today to other modalities such as speech input and output. Accessible web design seeks to integrate the four user interface modalities (visual, auditory, tactual, and kinesthetic) previously reserved for assistive computer technologies so that the widest possible audience can benefit regardless of disability, age, or limitations of the end user's technology. As the Internet evolves and technology advances, it is important for information technology managers and public policy technologists to understand accessible web design so that they can recognize public policy issues as they arise.

One particular example of a public policy problem is the language used to establish contract formation on the Web in the U.S. Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act passed in 2000. The language of this digital signature act not only creates problems for enabling accessible contract formation on the Web, but it also has an adverse impact on the use of alternative Internet access devices such as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). See The Internet Society Press Release, Landmark U.S. Digital Signature Legislation Falls Short with Regard to Persons with Disabilities and related June 2000 commentary, Questions about Electronic Signature Bill: Will Everyone Be Able to Participate?.

Nevertheless, the growing recognition that disability rights laws demand equal access to information and online services and programs has contributed to the development of accessible web design standards. In fact, the development of these standards, user agent accessibility guidelines, and web authoring tool accessibility guidelines is an acknowledgement of the practical and public policy needs for functionality and interoperability for the Web. This book is timely in that it provides the premier tools necessary for constructing accessible websites for a sustainable digital economy.

Complaints Filed Due to Inaccessible Web Design

At least two types of complaints can be filed against entities for creating and maintaining inaccessible websites. We will take a look at two examples and examine the facts of these cases. This will help you to better understand the legal liability and disability rights issues that can arise from failure to design an accessible website. These cases illustrate some of the public policy reasons for the importance of accessible design. Decisions made at the design phase for a website can have a profound impact on its navigation and usability, as well as legal liability for certain jurisdictions.

First, we will go back in Internet pioneering time to 1995 and the Wild, Wild Web—where there were no laws and every frontier website was on its own. At the time, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) administrative complaint was filed against the City of San José. It was the resolution of that complaint that led to the first accessible web design standard for local government in the U.S. Next, we will fast-forward to 1999-2000 and examine the facts of the first fully adjudicated case in the world on the issue of constructing accessible websites. This case is the 1999 Australian complaint filed against the Sydney, Australia Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.

ADA Complaint Against the City of San José, California

In 1995, I served as the ADA Compliance Officer for the City of San José, California, and was responsible for citywide compliance with State and Federal disability access laws. In that capacity, I was also designated to receive, investigate, and resolve ADA administrative complaints filed against the City. These complaints would be filed by, or on behalf of, people with disabilities who alleged discrimination on the basis of disability in their access to City programs, services, and facilities. San José was the third largest city in California and the eleventh largest in the nation.

At that time, my office received an ADA complaint against the City of San José for operating an inaccessible website. A City Commissioner, who was blind, complained that she was unable to access City Council documents as part of her City Council advisory role because the documents were posted in an inaccessible format, Portable Document Format (PDF). This was a case where the posting of inaccessible City Council documents violated the "effective communication" requirement of the ADA. Because the ADA is a civil right, it did not matter if the webmaster did not know that the format was inaccessible. The mere fact that the Commissioner was discriminated against was enough.

Even four years later in 1999, the U.S. Department of Education reported on the accessibility challenges of posting documents in Adobe Acrobat's PDF format (for more, go to

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has provided one of the most controversial accessibility problems of the decade....Unfortunately, documents displayed by the Adobe suite of products are totally unusable by those using screen reader technology to retrieve information from a computer display.

This accessibility problem remains a difficulty even today, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 16 of this book.

At the time the web access complaint was filed, my office was familiar with screen reader access, since we had initiated the practice of e-mailing Commission agendas and supporting documentation to the Chair of the San José Disability Advisory Commission, who also was blind. Not only did this practice eliminate the staff time, cost, and delivery delay for creating an accessible audiotaped document, but also the electronic version provided word searchability not available to the Commissioner with the audiotape format.

As I researched the web access complaint, I found that I, too, was a stakeholder in the accessible web effort, since I needed captioning to understand webcasts and streaming audio. As a person with a lifetime significant hearing loss, who had taken years and years of speech and lip-reading lessons, I found it simply impossible to lip-read audio on the Web!

In my capacity as a city manager, it was imperative that a policy be developed to manage the ADA violation on a proactive, rather than reactive basis. My legal analysis found that websites constituted a program or service of the City and were thus subject to the ADA. Already, a growing number of administrative complaints were being filed against U.S. entities operating inaccessible websites. Not until the following year was my legal analysis confirmed by a policy ruling from the U.S. Department of Justice (see Chapter 16 for further information).

By June 1996, I had written the City of San José Web Page Disability Access Design Standard. This standard was developed in response to the monitoring of ADA Internet complaints and the need to incorporate City ADA implementation policies. Seven minimum requirements were identified for web accessibility, and it was understood that these standards would evolve as new technologies and information systems emerged to solve the problem:

  1. Provide an Access Instruction page for visitors (explaining the accessibility features of the website and providing an e-mail hyperlink for visitors to communicate problems with web page accessibility).
  2. Provide support for text browsers and descriptive hyperlinks (links such as this and click here do not alone convey the nature of the target link).
  3. Attach alt-text to graphic images so that screen readers can identify the content. 4. For each photograph contributing meaningful content to the page, provide a hyperlink to a page providing descriptive text of the image.
  4. Provide text transcriptions or descriptions for all audio and video clips. 6. Provide alternative mechanisms for online forms since forms are not supported by all browsers (such as e-mail or voice/TTY phone numbers).
  5. Avoid access barriers such as the posting of documents in PDF, nonlinear format, Frame format, or requiring visitors to download software for access to content. If posting in PDF, then accessible HTML or ASCII must also be posted by the webmaster converting the document.

In 1996, the City of San José Web Page Disability Access Design Standard was the first governmental policy to be implemented in the U.S. and was adopted by jurisdictions both in the U.S. and abroad. Designated as a "best practice" by the federal government, the standard was featured in former President Clinton's January 1997 inauguration as a virtual technology bridge to the Presidential Technology Tent on the mall. That same year, the League of California Cities named the City of San José as the winner of the prestigious Helen Putnam Award for Excellence for implementing the standards at the San José Public Library website.

Maguire v. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games

In 1999, Mr. Maguire, a blind citizen of Australia, tried to request an Olympic Games ticket book in Braille format. He was told that blind people could have access to it if it was available on the Internet. Mr. Maguire, a user of refreshable Braille technology, explained that he could access information only if it was presented in accordance with international accessibility guidelines. He also stated that since the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) website did not comply with those guidelines, a lot of information was not accessible to him. The SOCOG response was that he should seek assistance from a sighted person.

On June 7, 1999, Mr. Maguire filed a complaint with the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) enforcement agency—the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). His complaint alleged that he was unlawfully discriminated against by SOCOG in three respects:

The ticket book and souvenir program allegations were dealt with separately and are not the subject of this discussion.

Ultimately, in August 2000, the SOCOG was found to have discriminated against the complainant in breach of Section 24 of the DDA in that the website did not include alt-text on all images and image map links, the Index to Sports could not be accessed from the Schedule page, and the Results Tables were inaccessible. The SOCOG was ordered to make the website accessible by the start of the Sydney Olympics, but because they were found only partly compliant in November 2000, damages were awarded in the amount of $20,000. (For more on the decision, see

By unlawfully breaching Section 24 of the DDA, the SOCOG decision confirmed the view that the DDA applied to the online provision of goods, services, or facilities to the public in Australia, whether or not for payment. According to the August 28, 2000, press release of the Internet Industry Association:

Disability access is therefore a serious consideration for any Australian business wanting to establish a presence on the Net. Sites which targeted customers overseas might also be liable under equivalent legislation in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere.

Expert witnesses for accessible web design on Maguire's behalf were Mr. Worthington and Ms. Treviranus. Mr. Worthington was the first Webmaster for the Australian Department of Defence. He is also one of the architects of the Commonwealth Government's Internet and web strategy. Ms. Treviranus is from the University of Toronto, where she is the manager of the Adaptive Technology Resource Center at the University. She also chairs the W3C Authoring Tool Guidelines Group.

I'll highlight a few points from the case, although I recommend that you review the entire decision of Maguire v. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.

Direct Discrimination

First, it is important to note that the HREOC held that Mr. Maguire was subject to direct discrimination and rejected the argument that he was not treated less favorably in respect to the website than a person who was not blind (see page 9 of the decision):

The respondent in constructing its web site (and its Ticket Book) was intending to offer a service to the public. In the case of the web site that service consisted in the provision of a large body of information. By the form and content of its web site the respondent sought to make the information available. Because of the manner in which that information was made available, a sighted person could access it. Because of the manner in which that information was made available it could not be accessed by a blind person because of his or her disability.

Unjustifiable Hardship vs. Remediation

Second, although the respondent argued that remediation of the website constituted unjustifiable hardship, this defense was rejected. The decision noted that the respondent argued that the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 had been released by the W3C on May 5, 1999, just the previous month, and that they "appeared subsequent to the planning and 'substantial implementation' of its site."

However, the HREOC noted that the website had been in the process of continual development until the day of the decision in August 2000. For an example of the accessibility difficulties at the website, see Mr. Worthington's demonstration and link to expert testimony.

Additional facts presented by both sides on the issue of unjustifiable hardship versus remediation demonstrate a significant variance in website analysis. The respondent made a number of arguments for unjustifiable hardship, including the following:

In contrast, Mr. Maguire offered a number of arguments for website remediation, including:

Effect of Addressing Access Early in Web Design

Lastly of interest was the comment by HREOC that, according to Ms. Treviranus, if accessible web design had been addressed early in the web development process, the cost would have been less than one percent of the total effort (see page 12 of the decision).

Development of Accessible Web Design Guidelines and Laws

Across the globe, there are now public policies and laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities to access the content of the Web. Web developers need to understand the types of accessible design guidelines and standards that govern their work. In general, you will find that there are statutes and regulations, treaties and public policies, industry codes, technical recommendations, and good practice guides.

Let's start with statutes and regulations.

Statutes and Regulations

A statute is an act of legislation declaring, commanding, or prohibiting something—such as a website design element. In other words, a statute is a law created by legislature as opposed to law generated by case law or judicial opinion. The corresponding regulations are the rules issued by governmental agencies to carry out the intent of the statute.

In the U.S., specifications for accessible design have been mandated through legislation. Congress enacted the Workforce Investment Act in 1998, which strengthened Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Also known as the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, the legislation authorized the U.S. Access Board to enter into rule-making and the publication of the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards on December 21, 2000. (See 36 CFR 1194, Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, Final Rule; for English, Spanish, and Japanese translations, see 508.htm.)

These standards became effective on June 21, 2001, and are broad in scope, covering technical standards in the following areas:

The Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards also include a section on "Functional Performance Criteria," as well as a section on "Information, Documentation, and Support." Technologists responsible for help desk assistance should particularly note the rules under the latter section.

Web developers and managers creating or maintaining websites for U.S. entities subject to Section 508 must implement these standards in order to participate in the U.S. market. Careful attention must be paid to the following Section 508 standards: "Software Applications and Operating Systems" (1194.21), "Web-Based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications" (1194.22), and "Information, Documentation, and Support" (1194.41).

When we look at U.S. web accessibility law in depth in Chapter 16, you will find that not understanding the legal technical requirements can lead to serious consequences. Not only will your expertise and credibility as a web designer be questioned, but when your client becomes a target for litigation, the client will seek you out to recover any damages incurred. One reason for this is that U.S. contracts for web design services typically include an indemnification clause seeking recovery of damages.

In Chapter 17, we will look at statutes, laws, and policies that govern accessible web design for countries outside the U.S. As you will see, every web design project you take on requires you to look at all relevant legal and technical requirements for accessible design. Any liability the web developer may be subject to is dependent upon the laws of the country and the nature of the contract you have entered into for the provision of web design services. The Maguire v. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games case is an example of liability that occurred outside the U.S. It is important to be informed as global web accessibility laws evolve.

Australia has a web design law. But what if you are developing a website for an entity in a country that does not have accessible web design laws? And what do you do if your country has a public policy or has signed on to a treaty requiring web accessibility but provides no guidance on implementation? The good news is that the remaining sources—industry codes, technical recommendations, and good practice guides—are your friends.

Industry Codes, Recommendations, and Good Practice

A treaty or public policy is only as good as its implementation requirements. For example, at this time, a new international treaty or convention is under development to protect the rights of people with disabilities around the world. Accessible information and communication technologies (ICT) is a core component of this United Nations effort, and it has been a privilege to serve as one of its Accessibility Subject Matter Experts. Hopefully, the final treaty language will point to specific technical requirements for implementation so that it will be clear how web developers in the affected countries can conform to the treaty requirements. When the treaty is finalized, affected countries with accessible web design laws or policies will need to harmonize with the treaty requirements, and countries without accessible web design laws will need to enact legislation for conformance.

Even if the treaty does not address accessible web design, there is technical guidance that may be helpful for you. For example, one industry code includes the Australian Bankers' Association (ABA) and its Industry Standards for Accessibility of Electronic Banking.

Examples of good practice guides include the European Guidelines for the Design of Accessible Information and Communication Technology Systems, as well as those practices referenced throughout this book.

And an important technical recommendation includes the specifications developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) discussed next. The World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG) is a stable international specification developed through a voluntary industry consensus. Released in May 1999, it has since been adopted by many countries. In Chapter 16, you will see many instances where the W3C WCAG has been given the force of law in litigation settlement agreements in the U.S. In Chapter 17, you will see the important role the W3C WAI has played in the standards of 25 countries worldwide.

Because the U.S. Section 508 is based on the W3C WCAG 1.0, let's first discuss the W3C WAI. We will then conclude with an introductory discussion of Section 508. For an indepth discussion, see Chapter 16.

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

In April 1997, the W3C announced the launch of the WAI to "promote and achieve Web functionality for people with disabilities" (see the press release at WAI-Launch.html). The project began with a WAI workshop on April 6, 1997, which I attended by invitation. I provided assistive technology for presenters with hearing loss, as well as copies of the first accessible web design standard written for the City of San José, California, in 1996.

The W3C WAI envisioned the establishment of an International Program Office (IPO), and in October 1997, one was launched. In the press release about the launch, Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director, commented that

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. The IPO will ensure the Web can be accessed through different combinations of senses and physical capabilities just as other W3C activities ensure its operation across different hardware and software platforms, media, cultures, and countries.

This press release also announced the appointment of Judy Brewer as Director of the IPO and noted that the IPO was sponsored by a partnership of government, industry, research, and disability organizations (see the press release at

Currently, the WAI, in coordination with organizations around the world, pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work:

WAI sponsors and funders include the following:

The W3C WAI technical activity has produced many significant work products, including the following:

WCAG Priorities

The WCAG has three priorities, and each checkpoint has a priority level assigned by the Working Group based on the checkpoint's impact on accessibility, as follows:

Priority 1:
A web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use web documents.
Priority 2:
A web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers to accessing web documents.
Priority 3:
A web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve access to web documents.

Some checkpoints specify a priority level that may change under certain (indicated) conditions. The complete list of WCAG checkpoints and their priority level can be found at

Today, governments around the world have adopted or are in the process of implementing W3C WCAG 1.0 or some form of a technical design standard. As of the writing of this chapter, the W3C WAI has issued a call for comments on a working draft for WCAG 2.0, as well as a draft document titled Understanding WCAG 2.0. As explained in the W3C call for comments, the working draft is a significant reorganization and includes individual success criteria and support documents. Once comments are received by December 21, 2005, an evaluation will be made as to how close they are to publishing a Last Call Working Draft. Once the Last Call is entered, it will take several months to progress through the W3C Recommendation Track. Until WCAG 2.0 becomes a W3C Recommendation, WCAG 1.0 will continue to be the current and stable document to use. For more information about accessible web activity outside the U.S., see Chapter 17.

Section 508: U.S. Web Accessibility Standards

Rather than adopt W3C WCAG, the U.S. has taken a different track by legislating Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards (also known as Section 508). Although a majority of the Web Section 508 rules are based on Priority Level 1 of the W3C WCAG 1.0, additional rules are particular to U.S. law. In fact, web developers and decision makers need to understand when to follow the technical specifications for W3C WCAG and when to follow Section 508.

On August 7, 1998, the U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 105-220—the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. This law significantly expanded and strengthened the technology access requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 508).

Today, U.S. Federal agencies and entities subject to Section 508 must make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. As you saw in the earlier discussion on website disability discrimination complaints, inaccessible technology interferes with an individual's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. As a result, accessible web design falls within the scope of Section 508.

The law applies to all covered entities whenever they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. The scope of electronic and information technology is expansively defined. It includes computers (such as hardware and software, and accessible data such as web pages), facsimile machines, copiers, information transaction machines or kiosks, telephones, and other equipment used for transmitting, receiving, using, or storing information.

Section 508 requires Federal agencies to give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. Federal agencies do not need to comply with the technology access standards if doing so would impose an undue burden. This is consistent with language expressed in the ADA and other U.S. disability rights legislation, where the term undue burden is defined as "significant difficulty or expense." However, agencies shall continue to have long-standing obligations under Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities upon request.

For the first time in U.S. history, Section 508 seeks to create a marketplace incentive for accessible technologies and utilizes the power of the Federal government purse to require accessible web design. A ripple effect is currently underway throughout U.S. state and local governments—Section 508 now informs state and local governments on how to meet their ADA obligations to provide accessible websites for their citizens. Already we see states adopting Section 508 policies and legislation as part of their institutional electronic and information technology standards. Chapter 16 covers Section 508 in depth.


In this chapter, you were introduced to the emergence of global law and policy guidelines pertaining to accessible web design. You learned that we have reached a significant crossroad, where our global policies, technologies, and purchasing choices determine whether or not every person can participate on the Web. You discovered the following:

As for the future of the Web, today's outreach and education on this important issue provide the foundation for tomorrow's accessible design of new technologies. By designing accessibly, everyone will benefit from this effort.