This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the earliest US legislation aimed at protecting people with disabilities. This milestone is important for the 61 million Americans with disabilities. However, it’s also a time to shine a light on how much more needs to be done to break down barriers in the push toward greater accessibility.
The work of activists and legislators in the past focused on physical accessibility, including making accommodations via ramps and in bathrooms. Now, the focus has shifted toward ensuring accessibility is granted in digital arenas. Online access has become increasingly critical for everyday life. While legislators have made some updates to the Rehabilitation Act, serious gaps still exist. It’s often up to companies and institutions themselves to take action to accommodate their staff and communities.
Read below to refresh your memory on the Rehabilitation Act as it stands and its impact. Plus, discover new laws legislators are looking to throw into the mix to better support people with disabilities.
Who does the Rehabilitation Act apply to?
The Rehabilitation Act only applies to government-funded entities. This reality is a key limitation of its impact. However, a wide range of organizations, including educational institutions and government agencies, fall under this category and need to adhere to it.
For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that institutions offer an education to all students, including those with disabilities. Before the Rehabilitation Act, educational institutions were able to deny services for students with disabilities.
Today, the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), another law that impacts students, work together to protect the rights of people with disabilities to pursue an education. IDEA has a narrower definition of disabilities than Section 504. Now, about 12% of students qualify under IDEA for Section 504 plans. Another 1.5% qualify only under Section 504 for services.
While the law protects the rights of millions of Americans to receive an education and accommodations to make that possible, it currently leaves out private businesses. It has opened the door though for more laws that protect the rights of those with disabilities. These include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to public spaces and private businesses.
The Rehab Act’s impact on online accessibility
Updates to the Rehabilitation Act include some online accessibility requirements. Changes to the law state that government agencies must provide individuals with disabilities equal access to information and data. Still, the Rehabilitation Act isn’t the best place to look for detailed and up-to-date information about how to make online content accessible.
The Biden Administration’s strong stance
President Biden’s administration issued an executive order detailing a commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA). The White House also released a statement explaining its stance on web accessibility. Unlike many accessibility laws, that statement creates a clear standard for online access. The Biden Administration adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 level AA as their benchmark. Now, anyone interested in knowing exactly what the government views as accessible for online content can refer to those guidelines.
Where WCAG & additional legal updates come into play
When it comes to online accessibility, the Rehab Act usually doesn’t cut it. Standards are constantly changing. It can be challenging for legislators, who often don’t move as fast as the tech industry, to keep up.
Fortunately, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) does a better job of staying up to date with its guidelines, known as WCAG. This set of standards isn’t the law in any country, but many nations do incorporate WCAG into their own legislation. Using WCAG, businesses and others can find out specifics and details to make note of when considering accessibility. For example, their website spells out the contrast levels necessary for accommodating people who are colorblind. It also lays out how to determine whether captions in videos are accurate enough to provide access to individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing. WCAG plays a vital role in accessibility.
What’s next for accessibility legislation?
Some legislators are keenly aware of the need for new laws and updates to ones that are 50 years old like the Rehab Act. For example, another accessibility law, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) is likely to undergo updates. Legislators also introduced the Communications, Video, and Technology Act (CVTA), a law that includes accessibility requirements for cutting-edge technology, such as AI and virtual reality.
Lawmakers will need to continue adapting regulations to keep up with these tools, or they’ll likely become inaccessible to many populations. In the meantime, the onus is on technology providers themselves to build in accessibility or for the companies and institutions using them to look for solutions when the law isn’t keeping up.
While the Rehabilitation Act still plays a role in educational institutions and other settings, it’s fortunately just one of several accessibility laws that create standards across the US. As the country celebrates the anniversary of its first accessibility law, it’s bittersweet, as so many barriers still persist.
To take a proactive approach, feel free to reach out to Verbit. We’re working with government bodies, educational institutions and companies across the country to make their online spaces more accessible. Reach out to learn how our solutions, like captioning, transcription and audio description, can support and better engage your communities – even when you’re not legally obligated to.