Laws & policies

The University of Washington values diverse experiences and perspectives and strives to fully include everyone who engages with the UW. The University is required to provide equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities to participate in, and receive the benefits of, the educational program, and require that the University provide accommodation or modifications when necessary to ensure equal treatments. Learn more about accessible technology at the UW.

Accessibility definition

“A person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.” – Office of Civil Rights

Topics on this page

Click on a link below to learn more about that topic.

Federal disability civil rights laws

For a great summary and more detailed discussion of how these laws impact higher edu, review “Legal Obligations for Accessibility” by UDL on Campus.


Title I of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. This applies not only to employment but also recruitment, training, hiring processes, etc.

In the case of an employee needing an accommodation, it is the responsibility of the employer to provide an applicant or employee with the necessary accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job. These accommodations often include modifying documents, providing assistive technology (hardware or software), physical adjustments, etc.

The Rehabilitation Act & Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Two disability-related civil rights laws govern the obligations of postsecondary institutions with respect to the accessibility of digital learning materials and online courses—the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by institutions that receive federal funding. Section 508 specifically addresses accessibility of electronic and information technology for federal agencies (many states, like Washington, have developed policies that support Section 508 standards). The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by employers (Title I), public entities (Title II), and places of public accommodation (Title III), all of which apply to the UW.

Section 504

Section 504 states that “no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service.

Each Federal agency has its own set of section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs. Agencies that provide Federal financial assistance also have section 504 regulations covering entities that receive Federal aid. Requirements common to these regulations include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations. Each agency is responsible for enforcing its own regulations. Section 504 may also be enforced through private lawsuits. It is not necessary to file a complaint with a Federal agency or to receive a “right-to-sue” letter before going to court. (DOJ, A Guide to Disability Rights Laws.

Section 508

Section 508 establishes requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the Federal government. Section 508 requires Federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. Read more on Section 508 on the Department of Justice website, A Guide to Disability Rights Laws.

Given the changes in technology since 1998, Section 508 has undergone a refresh and was published to the National Register on Jan 18, 2017.

One of the changes that came out of the refresh was to expand the application of 508 to include:

Public facing content:

  • Electronic content that is publicly available shall conform…
    • PDFs, Word docs, multimedia, etc.

Content that is not publicly available:

  • Agency official communication in nine categories:
    • An emergency notification
    • An initial or final decision adjudicating an administrative claim or proceeding
    • An internal or external program or policy announcement
    • A notice of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity, or personnel action
    • A formal acknowledgment of receipt
    • A survey questionnaire
    • A template or form
    • Educational or training materials
    • Intranet content design

Washington State OCIO Policy 188 – Accessibility

Shortly after the State Board policy was approved, Washington Technology Solutions. (WaTech), the state of Washington “consolidated services agency”, passed another policy regarding accessibility of state agencies. The Washington State Policy #188 came about in order to address the under-representation of people with disabilities working in our state agencies.

If you want to learn about some recent cases from around the US and lessons learned from violations at other colleges, I’d suggest you check out the third video from the list below: Accessibility and the Legal Landscape in Higher Education or the webpage Legal Cases by Issue.

What these laws mean for instruction

For those working with faculty and in instruction it’s important to understand how the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act impact this area. These laws require that:

  • People with disabilities cannot be denied services due to their disability, e.g., you cannot tell a student that they can’t enroll in a particular program or take a class because of their disability.
  • Students with disabilities must be given appropriate accommodations (assistive technology, extended time, captions, etc.) to ensure they can meet the same objectives as students without disabilities, e.g.; you cannot refuse to give extended time on a test or provide documents in an alternative format to a student who has an accommodation request that outlines those needs.
  • People with disabilities should have access to material of the same quality and within the same time frame as people without disabilities, e.g., If you record your lecture and make it available to the class on a Friday in order to study for an exam on Monday, that video must be captioned and made available within the same time frame for a deaf student – otherwise they do not have the same access to the study materials as other students, which puts them at a disadvantage. Put simply: students with disabilities should not have to wait for accessible materials as it can hold back their progress in class.
  • Students with disabilities should be able to access the course material as easily as a student without a disability, e.g., A blind student should be able to independently access a website without the assistance of a sighted person.