In 1998, the U.S. Government updated Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, requiring federal agencies to make electronic communications accessible to disabled employees and members of the public. Standards created to comply with Section 508 list specific requirements that organizations must meet. Subpart B deals specifically with websites and lists 16 individual requirements.
Section 508 applies only to U.S. Government bureaus, agencies, and organizations. State and local governments and businesses are under no obligation to comply. However, a flurry of lawsuits filed by advocates for the disabled make it clear that current business exemptions from accessibility requirements can't go on forever.
Filers on these cases assert that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the Web since it's a public "space." Businesses should thus be required to make their "space" on the Internet just as accessible as they must make their physical spaces. Recent high-profile settlements involved Target, which paid $6 million in damages and made its website fully accessible, and Netflix, which agreed to provide closed captioning for all streaming movies by 2014.
The Netflix case, though, illustrates the confusion and conflict around website accessibility and the law. It also demonstrates the inevitability of regulation. Two cases were actually filed.
A Massachusetts court decided that Netflix's streaming service was a place of public accommodation — like a movie theater — and therefore had to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A California court, however, sided with Netflix's argument that the streaming service is not covered under the ADA and dismissed that particular case.
DoJ Weighing Web Accessibility, Business Impact and Existing (and Obsolete) Standards
In spite of mixed opinions from the courts, the Department of Justice has made it clear that the ADA was intended to adapt to technology. Just because the Web didn't exist when the ADA was enacted in 1990 doesn't automatically make it exempt.
A 2010 DoJ Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking opened up a series of questions for public comment. While some of the nearly 450 comments argued in favor of bringing websites under the ADA, others argued that requiring website accessibility would hurt businesses and others still warned of the threat of drive-by lawsuits against non-compliant sites.
With such strong feelings, with arguments on both sides of the case and with complicated issues to work out, it's easy to see why it's taken so long to get where we are today — and why it will likely take some time to get past the next step.
That next step is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which is expected to be released in 2013 and to use the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) as its definition of accessibility.
Using WCAG 2.0 makes sense, as it's an existing ISO standard that has been implemented and recommended by many organizations and governments. The Section 508 guidelines, on the other hand, have been showing their age for years. While the Section 508 standard was important and relevant in 1998 and still offers good recommendations, its references to frames, applets, server-side image maps, and blinking make it seem more like a humorous historical document than a real model for a forward-looking (and -thinking) standard.