Brief History of Disability and Web Accessibility in the United States

Workflow | Mian Bishop| December 19, 2018

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EBSCO Information Services Platform Product Manager Mian Bishop explores the history of accessibility and disability challenges.

The conversation surrounding accessibility and disability in the United States started more than two centuries ago. It is important to appreciate the steadfast advocacy and relentless pursuit by various individuals and organizations to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It is also worthwhile to pause and review important events and laws that have led to the conversations that dominate the discussion today – web accessibility. Here is a brief history of the schools, tools and rules that supported people with disabilities from civil rights laws to today’s technology.

Definition of Disability

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) refers to a person with a disability as any individual who either: a) has a physical or mental impairment substantially limiting one or more of his/her major life activities, b) has a record of such impairment, or c) is regarded as having such an impairment. Included in major life activities are breathing, walking, hearing, seeing, speaking, learning, working, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself.

The preferred term to use is “person with a disability” (or person with deafness, for example – person first) instead of “disabled or handicapped person.”  

Early History

The early important events that focused attention on disability are below. 

  • 1817-1864: Several schools were established: American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT (first school for children with disabilities); Perkins School for the Blind in Boston; Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind (now Gallaudet University). Gallaudet was the first university in the world to confer college degrees and in 1988, Gallaudet hired its first deaf president. 
  • 1869 & 1909: The first wheelchair patent registered with U.S. Patent Office. Forty years later, the first folding wheelchairs were introduced for people with mobility disabilities.
  • 1878 & 1909: Joel W. Smith presented Modified Braille to the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, but New York Point was preferred even though blind advocates supported Modified Braille. Thirty-one years later, New York Public School System adopted American Braille to use in classes for children with blindness.
  • 1933: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio, became first head of state with a significant disability.
  • 1973: The first handicap parking stickers were introduced in Washington, D.C.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Act states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, … shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.” In 1979, the Supreme Court’s first ruling on Section 504 of the Rehab Act established “reasonable modifications” as an important principle in disability rights law. 

The Rehab Act was amended in 1998 by Congress which required federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Specifically, under Section 508, federal agencies must provide employees with disabilities and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others. 

Moreover, Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 was amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities. Manufacturers should ensure that products are “designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities” when it is readily achievable to do so. Readily achievable meant “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”

On January 22, 2018, Section 508 and Section 255 were amended and finalized by the Access Board. The revision served to “refresh” existing regulations to address changing technology and harmonizing with information and communication technology accessibility standards developed worldwide. 

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

ADA was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. ADA is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life (e.g., jobs, schools, transportation) and all public and private places open to the general public. The law ensures that everyone, with or without disability, has the same rights and opportunities; an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities. 

In September 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law and became effective January 1, 2009. ADAAA emphasized that the definition of disability be construed in favor of “broad coverage of individuals to the extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis.”

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed WCAG in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. WCAG 2.0 standards require compliance with Sections 508 and 255 when applied to the function of the technology rather than types (e.g., computer, tablet, mobile). WCAG’s goal is to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and governments internationally.

Web “content” usually refers to the information in a web page or web application that includes natural information (e.g., text, images and sounds) and code or markup that defines structure, presentation, etc. 

Web “accessibility” means that the design and development of websites, technologies and tools ensures that people with disabilities can use them. Specifically, the expectation is that people with disabilities must be able to understand, perceive, navigate, interact with and contribute to the Web. It encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web such as auditory, speech, visual, cognitive, neurological and physical. 

Historically, the United States has come a long way in addressing the needs of people with disabilities. EBSCO Information Services is committed to ensuring that our products and services are accessible to all our customers and users, regardless of disability. 

EBSCO Accessibility Commitment

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Mian Bishop
EBSCO Information Services Platform Product Manager

Marianne Castano Bishop, Ed.D. (also known as Mian Bishop at EBSCO Information Services) is platform product manager for accessibility and internationalization. She has a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard University. As a child she had several friends who had disabilities and they were her first teachers. Since then, she has been an advocate for people with disabilities and is passionate about ensuring that everyone has the same access to information and information technology. She has lots of stories to share about accessibility.  She can be reached at mbishop@ebsco.com

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