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Recent Government Laws Relating to Disability and Product Design

There have been a number of laws passed in recent years all focused on helping to ensure that people who have disabilities will be able to continue to participate in different aspects of daily life and to use the products and services they encounter in their lives. Since a number of these laws affect people who design products, there has been increased interest in disability access by manufacturers. There has also however, been some confusion between the laws and what they cover. This quicksheet is intended to give a quick and general overview of some of these laws. This is not a complete or comprehensive writeup and is somewhat simplified to make it easier to understand the major purpose and features of the different laws. At the end of each section is a link to a web site with more complete information about the laws and related regulations.

ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA can be characterized as a civil rights law. It basically says that people with disabilities have a right to be able to access and use any facilities and programs that are available to other members of the public. For example, if you have a store or other service that you offer to the public, then it should be accessible to and usable by people who have disabilities.

If you are a manufacturer, it does NOT say that you must produce accessible products. You do have to make your stores accessible, as well as any parts of your company that you allow the public to access and use. You also have to make your company accessible to any employees who have disabilities and you cannot refuse to hire someone with a disability because of the disability, etc. But the ADA does not require anything particular of a company with regard to the accessibility of their products. (Though the ADA may require that your customers have accessible products if they use them in connection with their delivery of services to the public. (E.g. if you make ATMs) Some aspects of this are limited to what is not an undue burden. Other aspects are not. The ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines) set forth specific guidelines for accessibility for buildings and some devices (Phones, ATMs, Assistive Listening Systems). For more information see the U.S. Department of Justice Americans with Disabilities Act ADA home page. A list of Resources on the Americans with Disabilities Act is also available in the Information Resources section of our site.

Sec 255 of the Telecommunications Act

Unlike the ADA, this law specifically requires manufacturers of telecommunication products and services to make those products and services accessible to people with disabilities whenever it is "readily achievable" (i.e. it can be done with little effort or expense).

Section 255 states that: "MANUFACTURING- A manufacturer of telecommunications equipment or customer premises equipment shall ensure that the equipment is designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. "TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES- A provider of telecommunications service shall ensure that the service is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. "COMPATIBILITY- Whenever the requirements of subsections (b) and (c) are not readily achievable, such a manufacturer or provider shall ensure that the equipment or service is compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily achievable. The Access Board created a set of guidelines for Telecommunications Access which the FCC has adopted. The final rulemaking for Section 255 can be found on the FCC Disabilities Issues Task Force Section 255 page.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 does not require companies to do anything. It requires the US Government to purchase accessible Electronic and Information Technologies (E&IT) whenever it is not an "undue burden" to do so. Thus, there are marketing or sales incentives for industry to create accessible products if they want to sell them to the government. But there is no requirement that they do so.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires access to the Federal government's electronic and information technology. The law covers all types of electronic and information technology in the Federal sector and is not limited to assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. It applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use such technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and the public to the extent it does not pose an "undue burden." The law directs the Access Board to develop access standards for this technology that will become part of the Federal procurement regulations.

The scope of Section 508 is limited to the Federal sector. It does not apply to the private sector, nor does Section 508 impose requirements on the recipients of Federal funds (with the possible exception of recipients of Tech Act Grants to States). For more information see the Section 508 Final Statndards on the Access Board site or visit the Department of Justice Section 508 Home Page.