Quick Guide to Section 508 & 504 Accessibility Lawsuits

February 20, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: February 22, 2018

Quick Guide to Section 508 and 504 Lawsuits

In light of the 2015 law suit brought by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) against Harvard University and MIT, here’s a quick overview of the US Rehabilitation Act’s Sections 504 and 508 and their case history as it relates to web accessibility.

Overview of the Accessibility Laws

Rehabilitation Act, Section 504

Signed in 1977, Section 504 protects the civil rights of people with disabilities. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) expanded its application to many public sector entities, including all state, local, and federal government entities and public schools. Section 504 clearly states that any organization which receives federal subsidies must accommodate people with disabilities.

Rehabilitation Act, Section 508

Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1986, but was poorly enforced until it was amended in 1998 to explicitly cover electronic communications in federal programs and services. According to Section 508, all federal agencies must reasonably accommodate people with disabilities in both internal and external communications, including online video.

While Section 508 does not explicitly include federally funded programs (as Section 504 does), many other programs are required to comply with Section 508 through the Assistive Technology Act and state law.

It is that gray area which prompted lawsuits to clarify the accessibility law’s reach.

Section 508 & 504 Lawsuits

National Association for the Deaf v. Harvard University & Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In their complaint filed against Harvard, the NAD cited violation of Section 504:

[The plaintiffs] bring this civil rights action against Harvard to enforce the requirement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) that an educational institution receiving federal financial assistance – such as the millions of dollars in federal financial assistance that Harvard receives each year – must not deny persons with disabilities the benefits of its programs and activities, an obligation that applies to “all of the operations of…a college, university, or other postsecondary institution.”

Their complaint against MIT used the same language. They also request an injunction to mandate complete and accurate captions on all the universities’ videos.

In responding to the complaint, the Harvard spokesperson said he looks forward to the US Department of Justice “providing some much-needed guidance in this area” of accessibility law, and that Harvard intends to comply with all regulations. A ruling in this case would clarify whether Section 504 applies to private schools that receive federal funding.

National Federation for the Blind v. Small Business Association

In an age where the Internet is a part of everyday life, blind people must have equal access to the information and resources provided on the World Wide Web.

In 2009, the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) filed suit against the Small Business Association (SBA) for its website’s accessibility. The NFB claimed that the SBA violated Section 508 because its website was incompatible with screen readers or Braille displays, thus making its content inaccessible to the blind. The suit was resolved in June, 2014, with the SBA hiring an accessibility coordinator and assembling a Section 508 compliance task force.

National Federation for the Blind v. Social Security Administration

The NFB filed a second complaint later that year against the Social Security Administration (SSA). They argued that the SSA’s website violated Section 508 because blind users couldn’t fill out forms to apply for assistance nor adequately access information about their benefits.

National Federation for the Blind v. United States Department of Education

The NFB launched another Section 508 lawsuit in 2009, this one aimed at the US Department of Education. USA Learns, a free English-language learning website, was allegedly inaccessible to blind users.

NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer said:

In an age where the Internet is a part of everyday life, blind people must have equal access to the information and resources provided on the World Wide Web. In particular, the United States government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that the information it provides on the Internet is equally accessible to all in America, including the blind.

The Department of Education resolved another NFB complaint in October of 2014 regarding the accessibility of student loan information on their website. The NFB plans to continue raising complaints about noncompliant federal websites as they receive reports from blind users.

All of these NFB complaints were levied against federal websites, which would very clearly be covered by Section 508. The next challenge is to establish precedent for accessibility compliance of private websites.


With disability advocates defending their rights to an accessible Internet, and with the steady, inevitable updates to accessibility laws, public and private organizations alike would benefit from proactive action.

To learn more about how to make your website accessible, watch this webinar The Long Road from Reactive to Proactive: Developing an Accessibility Strategy.

Read the free report: 2017 State of Captioning.

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