Accessibility 101

Accessibility and the Law

At the University of Iowa, IT accessibility is a quality proposition, and can result in a better, more usable IT experience for all.  At the same time, accessibility also has legal implications that derive from civil rights law, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The following is for informational purposes, and is not to be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, please contact University of Iowa General Counsel.


In a 2010 Dear Colleague Letter to University presidents, the Department of Justice wrote: "There is no doubt that the Internet sites of state and local government entities are covered by Title II of the ADA. Similarly, there is no doubt that the websites of recipients of federal financial assistance are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Department of Justice has affirmed the application of these statutes to Internet numerous agreements with state and local governments and recipients of federal financial assistance."

In essence, this means that in the eyes of the Department of Justice, universities are broadly accountable for the accessibility of the websites and applications they publish.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 prohibits disability-based discrimination by programs that receive Federal funds.  This means that students, staff, faculty, and visitors with disabilities cannot be denied access to programs and services due to inaccessible technology. As a recipient of Federal funding, the University of Iowa is subject to Section 504. 

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed before the advent of the Internet, but some of the act’s key provisions apply to public institutions. Title II of the ADA requires that communications to people with disabilities be equally as effective as communications with non-disabled people in their timeliness, accuracy, and delivery method. 

The Legal Landscape

The Department of Justice has determined that Internet and web sites are covered under both Section 504 and the ADA.  The DoJ has also indicated that it will pursue complaints of discrimination under Title II of the ADA, and has entered into settlement agreements with several American universities, requiring remediation of IT systems due to accessibility issues with websites, learning management systems, e-readers, online media, and other institutional systems. 

These settlements result in improved accessibility and better systems overall, but they can be costly.  By producing IT systems with accessibility in mind, we can deliver better technology to all users while minimizing risk to the institution.

For more information on the legal aspect of accessibility at Iowa, please contact the Office of the ADA Coordinator.

Thought Exercise:

How much of a role should legal implications play in your decision to implement accessibility in your technology?