Accessibility, I’m Still Wrong!

A while ago, I talked about the legal requirements for academia web development. I pointed to Section 508 because it was “just another section” of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 504 was DEFINITELY required.

I was wrong.

Upon further inspection, we are ONLY under Section 504 because Section 504 is a matter of civil rights, while 508 is “just a guideline”. Section 504 (or title III of the ADA (American’s with disabilities Act of 1990)) is what people reference when filing suit. 508 is not directly enforceable outside of government agencies. Even then it can be trumped by 504.

So when doing things in academia, using 508 is useful in that it will get you 90% of the way there, but that 10% can still get you under 504. The trick is it’s not clearly defined. It’s left very ambiguous. This is probably a good thing from an accessibility standpoint because it can remain technology agnostic.

So stick to WCAG 2.0 AA.

Web Accessibility Under the Law for Harvard

What is required? Harvard is required to adhere to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (The most important Section of which is 504, but that doesn’t directly apply to web development).

The best way to understand the requirements of Section 508 is to read through the text of it. Specifically 1194.22 and by proxy, 1194.21. It should only take a few minutes. It’s not as bad to read through as the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). And, more importantly it’s not as comprehensive.

Once you get the highlights, WebAIM has provided a handy checklist. WebAIM is an open consortium that exists just for discussions such as this, similar to what OWASP is for Security. From the spec, (a) through (j) are reasonably straightforward. (k) needs to be understood, as “text only versions” seems to be a common accessibility misconception and isn’t necessary if all of the other items are taken care of.

(l) is a biggie because it requires a different approach to javascript than 99% of js writers do. What it means is to make all interfaces possible to navigate without a mouse, in a way that’s readable to screen readers. That just means following the spirit of (a) through (j) as it pertains to your interface. This seems borderline impossible when you look at things you’ve built and try to add it in after the fact, but is much more reasonable when you design it from the start with this in mind.

Which seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to best practices. These things need to be thought about from the start, not thrown in last minute. So I think the solution for this is to spread information around. Not try to force this into existing projects, but bring them up as new projects / rewrites begin. It’s a lot to think about, I think the trick is to introduce the topics slowly but consistently into our culture until it becomes something we all know and just do without having to be told.

Is Harvard Required by Law to Comply to Accessibility Standards?

Simple answer: Yes.

I have been looking all over for an answer to this. Is there actually a law that defines what we (Harvard University) need to follow in terms of web accessibility? If you search for accessibility law (in the US), you’re basically only going to find references to Section 504 and Section 508.

These are “sections” of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. So all sections (amendments) are equally applicable.

From the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Brochure:

The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education enforces regulations implementing Section 504 with respect to programs and activities that receive funding from the Department. The Section 504 regulation applies to all recipients of this funding, including colleges, universities, and postsecondary vocational education and adult education programs. Failure by these higher education schools to provide auxiliary aids to students with disabilities that results in a denial of a program benefit is discriminatory and prohibited by Section 504.

This brochure is linked from the Accessible Education Office’s page on student’s rights.

What this means as far as what is required is a bigger question, and not one I want to write up right now.