Libraries and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 May 2000



Boyer, C. (2000), "Libraries and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Libraries and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

David Johnson, Column Editor

Libraries and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Carol Boyer

[Ed.: "EASI Access to Library Technology," a regular feature of Library Hi Tech News, examines new technology, information sources and services, and other news of interest to librarians concerned with providing quality services to their patrons with disabilities. EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), in affiliation with the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), is concerned with new and emerging technologies for computer users with disabilities.]

Introduction ­ Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act) requires that when federal agencies purchase new computer hardware or software, or other electronic equipment for their employees or for use by the general public, they must ensure that these new acquisitions work with existing assistive technologies (AT) such as screen-reading software and Braille display units. In short, it requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

On August 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which includes the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 (P.L. 105-220). The following summary is excerpted from "Questions and Answers about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998," which is available on the RESNA Technical Assistance Project Web site ( The Rehab Act was originally enacted in 1973, while Section 508 was first added with the 1986 Rehab Act amendments. The 1998 amendments signed by President Clinton significantly expand and strengthen the technology access requirements in Section 508 (29 USC, 794d), by requiring the establishment of consistent government-wide standards, which will make it easier for federal agencies to meet their accessibility obligations. The establishment of government-wide standards is also expected to promote competition in the technology industry by clarifying the federal market's requirements for accessibility of products intended for general use. The new version of Section 508 also establishes a complaint procedure and reporting requirements that further strengthen the law.

The Access Board (also known as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) is required to consult with the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Defense, the General Services Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the electronic and information technology industry, and disability organizations in the development of these standards. During 1999, the Access Board created and met with an Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) to advise it on the standards. The proposes standards are available on the Access Board Web site ( They set forth a definition of electronic and information technology and provide the technical and functional performance criteria necessary to implement the requirements of Section 508. The Access Board's definition of "electronic and information technology" is consistent with the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 that defines "information technology" to include any "equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information." It includes computer hardware, software, networks, and peripherals as well as many electronic and communications devices commonly used in offices. These standards will help federal agencies determine whether or not a technology product or system is accessible.

Federal agencies must comply with Section 508 on or after August 8, 2000. Technology developed or acquired for a federal agency by a contractor must also comply with the standards. If a federal agency determines that it would pose an undue burden to comply with the standards, it must still provide information and data to individuals with disabilities through an alternative means of access that can be used by the individuals.

In 2000, the Attorney General will submit a report to the President on the extent to which the electronic and information technology of the federal government is accessible to individuals with disabilities. In addition, every two years thereafter the Attorney General must report to the President and the Congress on federal agency compliance with the requirements of the law and on any actions on individual complaints.

How Section 508 Applies to Public Libraries

Section 508 applies to federal departments and agencies. It does not apply to recipients of federal funds and does not regulate the private sector. However, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) and its successor law, the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (AT Act), both contain provisions requiring grant recipients to comply with Section 508. Each state that receives a grant under Section 101(e)(3) of the AT Act must continue to abide by the assurances the state made in its application submitted under section 103 of the Tech Act, and must continue to comply with the Tech Act's reporting requirements. In Section 103(d)(6) of the Tech Act, states were required to submit an assurance that the state, or any recipient of funds made available to the state, would comply with guidelines established under Section 508. Such compliance includes adhering to the standards issued and published by the US Access Board. Since all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, are recipients of federal funds under the AT Act, Section 508 binds them all, along with recipients of federal funds passed along through these jurisdictions.

Therefore, all public libraries will need to comply with Section 508's requirements for accessibility of information technologies for both their patrons and their employees. But just what is an "accessible" information technology system? In general, an information technology system is accessible to individuals with disabilities if it can be used through a variety of senses and does not depend on one mode of use. For example, a system that provides output only in audio format would not be accessible to people with hearing loss, and a system that requires mouse actions to navigate would not be accessible to individuals who cannot use a mouse because of a dexterity or visual disability. The Access Board's standards will explain the detailed technical and functional performance criteria that will determine whether a technology product or system is "accessible."

Overall accessibility of electronic and information systems under Section 508 is not the same as accommodation of individuals at their worksites. Even if a system is accessible, individuals with disabilities may still need specific accessibility-related software or peripheral devices as an accommodation to be able to use it. For example, in order to use an accessible word-processing program, a person who is blind may need add-on software that reads text aloud; however, if the word-processing program could not be made compatible with a screen-reading program, it would not count as accessible under Section 508.

Technical Assistance Resources for Section 508

For technical assistance on complying with Section 508, the General Services Administration (GSA) offers a manual called "Managing Information Resources for Accessibility," which is available on its Web site (

Disability organizations, non-profits, and universities also offer assistance. One such resource is the Trace Research and Development Center ( located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Trace Center develops universal design principles incorporating accessibility for persons with disabilities. The Archimedes Project at Stanford University ( is a multidisciplinary research group devoted to ensuring universal access to information regardless of an individual's needs, abilities, or preferences. Current research projects include the development of the Total Access System (TAS) that will provide universal access to any computer-based equipment, and the development of various "Accessors," which will provide access to computer information for people with a multitude of disabilities.

Another good resource on library accessibility is located on the Disability Resources Web site, A sub-page at this link highlights several library professional associations (

The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), addresses library services to people with visual or physical disabilities, deafness, and developmental disabilities, as well as the frail elderly through ASCLA's Libraries Serving Special Populations (LSSPS). ASCLA also has an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Assembly chaired by Rhea J. Rubin, 510/339-1274; rjrubin@mindspringcom

In addition, the ALA has a Library Information Technology Access (LITA) division and a Web Accessibility Task Force. LITA has published two documents entitled Accessible Work Stations and Accessible Technologies. To obtain copies, contact Audrey Gorman, Director of the Roads to Learning project and Chair of the Web Accessibility Task Force at 1/800-545-2433, ext. 4027;

State Activities and Information

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) is working with the Association of Tech Act Projects (ATAP) on Section 508 compliance at the state agency level. See the NASIRE Web site at

Within the states, the AT Act grantees also provide technical assistance. Two highlighted projects are the Texas Assistive Technology Partnership (TATP) and the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance (WATA). TATP is coordinating an increase in electronic information access by persons with disabilities, particularly through Internet connections in Texas public schools and libraries through the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF). The Texas project estimates that more than 3,500,000 consumers would be affected by this systems change and advocacy initiative. This figure will increase as the state's minority and disability populations increase. (In general, minorities have a disproportionately higher rate of disability.) In Texas, approximately 6,900 library sites are eligible for TIF assistance, including the 6,000 libraries housed at K-12 schools, the state-accredited public libraries at 757 locations, and about 150 libraries housed in two and four-year institutions of higher education (universities and community colleges).

Among TATP's library-related activities are the following:

  • Requests for proposals issued by the TIF now include required assurances, guidelines, and training requirements pertaining to access by individuals with disabilities.

  • The Texas Civil Rights Project (a legal services organization) now advocates for Internet access by individuals with disabilities and is willing to pursue ADA-related litigation on behalf of a person denied access.

  • Curricula have been developed by the TATP project for use in the training required of the TIF grantees.

  • Consumer checklists were developed and provided by the TATP project to enable individuals with disabilities and families of students with disabilities to evaluate Internet access in their local libraries and schools.

  • Disability advocacy organizations are gaining recognition and knowledge of Internet access issues affecting their constituents.

  • Vendors of equipment to schools and libraries are being made aware of the requirements to provide for accessibility.

In 1997 and 1998, the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance (WATA) worked collaboratively with the Washington State Library Connectivity Project to increase access to information in rural libraries. As a result of this initiative WATA established a relationship with the Gates Library Program, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Library Program (formerly called the Gates Center for Technology Access) is dedicated to partnering with public libraries to bring access to computers, the Internet, and digital information for patrons in low-income communities in the USA and Canada. This project provides computer equipment, training, and technical support to rural and inner city libraries with a high proportion of underprivileged populations. Following the successful implementation of accessible stations in rural libraries in Washington State, the Library Program approached WATA to receive assistance with developing accessible technology solutions for their project. The assistive technology solutions, training materials, and Web-based information on accessibility are now being distributed and used nationwide. WATA and the Library Program have also collaborated to develop Bigprint, an NT profile to accommodate library patrons with low vision. WATA staff presented the concepts of library access and demonstrated the Bigprint profile at the 1999 CSUN conference (Amtmann and Cook, 1999).

Many other AT Act grantees are working with their state library systems to provide assistive technology to their patrons with disabilities. The South Dakota project, DakotaLink, is working with its state library system to make ABLEDATA accessible across the state at public libraries and schools. In Wyoming, the WYNOT project is collecting and inputting Wyoming-specific AT information into the statewide database (Connect Devices) for access through libraries, cooperative extension offices, and public access kiosks. The Massachusetts Assistive Technology Project (MATP) worked on HB99-1362 to set state accessibility standards for state information and SB99-165 to provide funding through the state library system for reading services for persons with visual impairments. At the Florida Alliance for Assistive Technology and Services (FAAST), the staff provides basic AT training to rural library staff. The Lee County Library in Florida has developed an AT vendor reference kit and distributed it to all branches in the county. It also serves as an AT demo site. The Assistive Technology Resource Centers (ATRC) of Hawaii coordinate with the state public library system to house AT equipment loan banks.


The following resources are a compilation of organizations and Web sites referenced in this article as well as additional resources on accessible electronic and information technology:


Amtmann, D. and Cook, D. (1999), "Increasing access to information and computer technology for people with disabilities through public libraries,"

Carol Boyer is a Project Associate at the RESNA Technical Assistance Project. She may be contacted at The RESNA Technical Assistance project is an activity funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), US Department of Education under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (Grant No. H224B990006).

David Johnson is an abstractor/ information specialist at the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Readers with questions, comments, or suggestions may e-mail him at

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