This blog has been updated to reflect the release of WCAG version 2.2 in October of 2023.
The law relating to web accessibility can be complex, with many different regulations and private lawsuits impacting the legal landscape. You may have heard about digital accessibility responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In this article, we’ll break down ADA vs. Section 508 to help you understand your responsibilities and how to achieve compliance.
What is Section 508?
Section 508 refers to a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It is a U.S. federal law that mandates that federal agencies create and use information and communications technology (ICT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. The definition of ICT includes software and websites, electronic documents (such as PDFs), multimedia content, phones, call centers, and more—anything that people may use in order to access federal services.
Section 508 applies only to federal agencies and departments, ensuring all people with disabilities can use federal agency resources. It may also apply to organizations doing business with federal agencies. A closely related section of the act, Section 504, similarly applies to entities that receive federal funding, such as schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, and more.
Learn more about Section 508 and how it relates to web content.
What is the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a U.S. civil rights law passed in 1990 that protects people from discrimination on the basis of disability. The ADA is a much broader law than Section 508, applying to any business in the private and public sector, and mandating equal access to employment opportunities and to physical spaces, for example.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and case law interpretation of the ADA have determined that it also applies to digital content. The ADA’s Title III prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodations.” While web accessibility is not explicitly mentioned in its language, legal rulings have determined that online assets, such as websites, can be considered places of public accommodation. This means if your web content is not accessible, you can face an ADA discrimination lawsuit.
Learn more about ADA compliance and how it applies to web content.
Making your site ADA and Section 508 compliant
Non-compliance with Section 508 web accessibility requirements can result in loss of funding for federal agencies, and can put product companies’ contracts with those agencies in jeopardy. And if your business isn’t a vendor of the federal government, you will likely still be required to make your websites and web content accessible in order to comply with the ADA. ADA non-compliance can result in reputation-damaging lawsuits and the legal fees that come with them.
Of course, the most significant consequence of non-compliance with the ADA or Section 508 is the wrongful exclusion of people with disabilities from access to online goods and services. And that’s not to mention the negative business impacts of excluding a consumer base who, along with their friends and family, control over $13 trillion in spending, globally.
So, how do you make sure your websites, software, apps, and other web content can be accessed by all? Currently, the gold standard for web accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.
Avoiding penalties: WCAG conformance
WCAG provides technical specifications to improve the accessibility of web content, websites, and web applications for people with a wide range of disabilities including auditory, cognitive, physical, and visual disabilities. WCAG success criteria are categorized into three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Each level includes and builds on the previous one, with Level A representing basic accessibility and Level AAA representing excellent accessibility. It is recommended that organizations conform to at least level AA criteria.
While WCAG standards do not constitute the law, they are designed to align with legal requirements, and in fact the refresh of Section 508 cites conformance with WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard of accessibility to which federal organizations must conform. The ADA does not mention WCAG explicitly, but DOJ enforcements of the ADA in recent years have cited conformance with WCAG AA standards as a settlement requirement.
As is noticeable in the previous paragraph, the WCAG standards continue to evolve, with each version improving on the previous by adding specifications or broadening the scope. Though Section 508 cites WCAG 2.0, the W3C has updated the WCAG standards twice since then. The most recent version, WCAG 2.2 was released in October of 2023, so Level Access recommends organizations work toward conformance with this latest version. For more details on how to conform with WCAG, read our Must-Have WCAG Checklist.
Learn more about WCAG conformance levels.
How Level Access helps
Together, the ADA and Section 508 help ensure that no business or agency, whether in the public or private sector, excludes individuals with disabilities from access to online content. But in the journey to an accessible internet, these laws only represent the destination. WCAG provides a roadmap to getting there. By conforming to WCAG standards, you’re well on your way to legal compliance.
So how can you achieve WCAG conformance? The Level Access solution combines comprehensive automated testing and manual evaluation, accessibility tools for designers, remediation support, legal expertise, and more. Learn more about our digital accessibility solution today.
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