Quick Guide to Section 508 & 504 Accessibility Lawsuits
Updated: December 6, 2021
Both Section 504 and 508 require organizations to make the necessary accommodations for people with disabilities.
Although many accessibility laws were written before the Internet was an integral part of everyday life, recent lawsuits and case law have extended accessibility requirements to online video.
Overview of the Accessibility Laws
Rehabilitation Act, Section 504
- Federal programs and activities
- Federal agencies
- Programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance*
- The Executive agency
- United States Postal Service
*This includes airports, state houses, public schools, colleges and universities, federally assisted housing, public libraries, police stations etc.
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; This includes making video accessible through captioning and description.
Rehabilitation Act, Section 508
- The federal government
- State government through “little 508s”
- State who receive federal funding through the Assistive Technology Act or other acts requiring compliance
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.
Section 508 also requires compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA.
Section 508 & 504 Lawsuits
National Association for the Deaf v. Harvard University & Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In February 2015, the NAD filed a suit against both Harvard University and MIT, citing violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for the universities’ failure to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials.
The complaint also requested an injunction to mandate complete and accurate captions on all the universities’ videos.
Both universities filed a motion to dismiss the case. After the DOJ weighed in on the side of the NAD, the appeals court denied Harvard and MIT’s motions to dismiss, saying that there is adequate precedent in ADA case law for the suit to proceed. Case is ongoing.Read: Best Practices for Caption Quality
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.
Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) v. UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley was sued by a DRA representing a group of students attending the university. Legal action was taken against UC Berkeley for lack of accessible textbooks and unrealistic accommodation timelines. The university violated Section 504, 508 and Title III of the ADA.
Both parties settled out of court in 2013, with UC Berkeley agreeing to make their library collection accessibility to students with print disabilities. The also agreed to reduce the time it took to convert books into digital alternatives.
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:
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.For more notable accessibility lawsuits read: What You Can Learn from Major Accessibility Lawsuits
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.
This post was originally published by Emily Griffin on February 20, 2015 and has since been updated.
This blog post is written for educational and general information purposes only and does not constitute specific legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.
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