Section 508 Goes to the Library: Complying with Federal Legal Standards to Produce Accessible Electronic and Information Technology in Libraries

Article excerpt

"Democracy does not put an end to injustice, but it does establish the conditions that allow us to aspire to achieve effective justice, not merely as an abstract ideal, but as a value present in the everyday life of citizens" (Cardoso, 2001, p. 10).

I. INTRODUCTION

As electronic and information technologies, from e-mail to search engines, have become a greater part of the everyday search for information, the provision of these technologies in a format accessible to individuals with disabilities has become of tremendous importance. Libraries, in their role of making information available to all users, must work to ensure that patrons with disabilities have equal access to electronic and information technologies. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act establishes accessibility standards for Federal government electronic and information technology to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities (29 U.S.C.A. [section] 794d). The law first took effect in June of 2001. Though the law directly applies to Federal government agencies, the requirements also apply to recipients of Federal funds through the Assistive Technology Act (29 U.S.C.A. [section] 3001). Funds from the Assistive Technology Act (AT Act) are distributed to the state governments and then passed on by the state government to various publicly supported organizations, including libraries. Any library that receives such funds from its state government could be required to comply with the accessibility standards of the law. Even beyond the possibility that libraries will be held to these legal standards, there are immensely important ethical reasons for libraries to comply with Section 508 standards. The legal standards that are established by Section 508 provide straightforward guidelines that libraries can follow to ensure that electronic and information technologies are accessible to patrons with disabilities.

This article will discuss the importance of accessibility to electronic and information technologies in libraries. The context and requirements of Section 508, including which organizations the law applies to, will be discussed, with emphasis given to its application to libraries. The article will outline the roles and requirements of other Federal laws and organizations relevant to electronic and information technology accessibility. Potential problems that must be considered in the implementation of Section 508 standards will be examined. Finally, this article will discuss the methods by which libraries can adopt the standards of Section 508 to implement accessibility.

II. LIBRARIES AND ACCESSIBILITY TO ELECTRONIC AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES

54 million Americans have some form of disability. Over the course of the history of the United States, individuals with disabilities have faced a numbing array of discriminatory practices, from eugenics to segregation (Jaeger & Bowman, 2002; Fleischer & Zames, 2001; Shapiro, 1993; Winzer, 1993). Beginning in the 1970s, civil rights laws were finally passed to guarantee equality and justice to individuals with disabilities, achieving justice in many areas of the everyday lives of individuals with disabilities. However, bringing equality into the everyday lives of individuals with disabilities is still an on-going challenge. The drive to bring equality to electronic and information technologies by making them accessible has only just begun in earnest with the implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is intended to create standards for accessibility to the electronic and information technology (EIT) used by the Federal government and by recipients of Federal funding through the AT Act. The passage of Section 508 has "sent ripples throughout all levels of government," changing the discussion from "a whisper of fear over what accessibility might cost" to " a clear statement that it must be accomplished because it is, quite simply, the right thing to do" (Patterson, 2002, p. …