If you want an overview of the laws, What Lawyers Should Know About Digital Accessibility, the ADA, and More covers a significant amount of US-based information about accessibility, including a timeline of landmark digital accessibility legal cases 1.
If you need a lawyer, you should call a lawyer.
In the meantime, here’s a not-a-lawyer’s overview of the US legislation affecting disability and accessibility you’re most likely to hear about.
The most well-known accessibility law in the United States is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities such as employment, purchasing goods and services, and participating in state and local government programs 2.
Enforcement of the ADA begins with someone filing a complaint 3:
- If the complaint involves employment discrimination, the complaint is filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 4
- Complaints of discrimination during air travel involving a specific airline are filed with the US Department of Transportation 5
- A complaint involving housing discrimination is filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 6.
- Filing a complaint involving anything else is done on the ADA site and is handled by the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division 3.
- For schools and universities, accessibility is enforced by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 7. Read Disability Discrimination for more information 7.
Section 508 is a procurement law, or a law that requires that someone take accessibility into account when making purchasing decisions or contracting for services 8.
When a federal agency wants to purchase computers, telecommunications equipment, multifunction office machines, software, websites, information kiosks and transaction machines, and electronic documents, the Section 508 standards ensure that those purchases are for accessible software and equipment 9.
Section 508 specifies in section that electronic content, software, and support documentation and services must meet Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements from WCAG 2.0. 9. Federal agencies use a template such as the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to identify the level of accessibility each product has 9.
While Section 508 is specifically the federal government, it has a wider impact than just federal agencies 8. While not specifically required to follow Section 508, many state and local governments have adopted the same WCAG guidelines and VPAT requirements 8.
A person with a complaint regarding Section 508 violation will file it with the federal agency that allegedly violated Section 508.
In addition to the ADA and Section 508, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) specifies accessibility for video communications, text messaging, web browsers on mobile devices, and other similar technologies. It states that all video programs presented with captions on television must be presented with closed-captions on the internet.
- Booking or changing a reservation, including all flight amenities;
- Checking in for a flight;
- Accessing a personal travel itinerary;
- Accessing the status of a flight;
- Accessing a personal frequent flyer account;
- Accessing flight schedules; and
- Accessing carrier contact information.
The Accessible Canada Act
Accessibility Standards Canada is the department created under the Accessible Canada Act to define and enforce accessibility standards across the country 12. Their goal is to “help achieve a barrier-free Canada by 2040” through the development of accessibility standards, advancing accessibility research, and sharing information related to accessibility 12. These standards are not yet complete
Government of Canada standards
The Government of Canada adheres to the following four standards, which do not apply to the private sector 8:
- Standard on Web Accessibility
- Standard on Web Usability
- Standard on Web Interoperability
- Standard on Optimizing Websites and Applications for Mobile Devices
- The Province of Ontario has the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
- The Province of Quebec has the Standards sur l’accessibilité du Web
The United Kingdom
The Equality Act of 2010 replaced three older laws regarding discrimination with one board law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace and in society in general on the basis of 8:
- Race or ethnic identity
- Pregnancy or parenthood status
- Sexual orientation or identity
- Religion, belief, or lack of religion or belief
The law applies to public authorities “and to any other organisation when it is carrying out a public function” 8.
Read more about the Equality Act 2010 on Gov.UK .
The European Union has two European directives that impact all member states 8:
- EU Directive 2016/2102 is a procurement law similar to the US Section 508 law that applies to the public sector and is already in effect 8. This law uses WCAG 2.1 as a guidelines base 8.
- EU Directive 2019/882 applies to the private sector and will be in effect starting in June 2025 8.
The European Accessibility Act is similar to the US ADA which will begin to be enforced in 2025 8. Products and services that were identified as being most important to people with disabilities include 8:
- Computers and operating systems
- ATMs, ticketing, and check-in machines
- TV equipment related to digital television services
- Telephone services and equipment
- Access to audio-visual media such as TV broadcast and related equipment
- Services related to air, bus, rail, and waterborne transportation
- Banking services
The W3C WAI’s Web Accessibility Laws & Policies page is currently being updated with a list of governmental policies related to web accessibility.
- What Lawyers Should Know About Digital Accessibility, the ADA, and More by Vivian Cullipher at MicroAssist
- Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act on ada.gov
- File a Complaint on ada.gov
- Filing a Charge of Discrimination by the EEOC
- Complaints Alleging Discriminatory Treatment Against Disabled Travelers Under The Air Carrier Access Act and 14 CFR Part 382 by the USDOT
- Report Housing Discrimination by the HUD
- Disability Discrimination by the USDOE
- Accessibility Fundamentals – Disabilities, Guidelines, and Laws by Deque University
- About the ICT Accessibility 508 Standards and 255 Guidelines by the US Access Board
- Consumer Inquiries and Complaint Center at fcc.gov
- Passengers with Disabilities by the USDOT
- About Us by Accessibility Standards Canada