ADA, Section 508, & WCAG-Navigating the Rules of Accessibility Legislation

Gavel on Keyboard symbolizing digital accessibility lawsuits.

Navigating the Rules of Accessibility

There is currently a sea of information about accessibility to be found online and among accessibility professionals.  Acronyms and numbers such as ADA, 508, and WCAG are tossed around like so much shiny, slippery fish. But what do these accessibility legislation terms mean?  What do you need to know?

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)

The ADA was signed into law in 1990.  It is the single most important piece of accessibility legislation in the US today. It requires that governments, businesses, and nonprofit services providers make accommodations for the disabled public to access the same services as the able-bodied.

But for websites, the legal argument is whether website owners are operating “a place of public accommodation.” The statute explicitly states twelve different types of public accommodations including “other sales or rental establishment.” The list, created in 1988 and signed into law in 1990, ideologically covers most commercial establishments but does not expressly state websites; though this has been ruled repeatedly to include websites.

However, not all US businesses are bound by the ADA.  Just like issues in the built environment (i.e wheelchair ramps), the law does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees and employers are not required to provide accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the business.

Section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act)

Refreshed in 2018, these rules “only” apply to federal websites and the websites of companies that contract with federal agencies or receiving federal funds. This includes most educational institutions. It requires them to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. That means that federal organizations and websites must:

  • Make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow an employee with a disability to perform the functions of a specific role
  • Make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow an applicant with a disability to apply for a job
  • Ensure that all employees have access to equal benefits and privileges
  • Provide necessary software to employees to access information

However, section 508 still lists a number of exceptions including for items that would pose a national security concern or an “undue burden.”

Both the ADA and Section 508 list exceptions, but how exactly a judge defines “undue hardship” and “burden” are decided on a case-by-case basis.  Decisions have been inconsistent. A successful or growing business may find that what is considered “undue” today will not qualify once the company goes public, has good first-quarter earnings, or hires extra staff. It makes sense to be proactive and become compliant sooner rather than later. 

WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)

 The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, is an international community that develops web standards.  The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops standards and resources to help organizations better understand and implement accessibility. The W3C has no legislative powers, but governments around the globe have aligned their accessibility legislation and initiatives with the W3Cs standards.

There are a number of versions and levels of WCAG that will be covered in a future article.  In brief, these include:

WCAG 2.0 (ISO/IEC 40500) 

These guidelines were published in 2008 as guidance for web developers (page authors, site designers, etc.), web authoring tool developers, and anyone else who may want or need standards for web accessibility.  These guidelines are directly referenced in Section 508.

The guidelines are technologically agnostic. They apply regardless of the device or technology being used to access the website. By designing WCAG 2.0 around principles and not technology, the W3C created an ethical statement as well as useful guidance. I’ve written an article previously explaining these Four Pillars of WCAG.

WCAG 2.1

This update was published in June 2018, and builds upon, but does not replace, WCAG 2.0. Its primary focus is on shoring up holes created by changing technology in the decade since 2.0 was published (smartphones and other small screen devices being the largest change).

And there’s also… EN 301 549

European standard EN 301 549 covers “Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services.” This European standard was updated in September 2018 to adopt Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 for ICT including:

  • web content
  • electronic documents
  • non-web software, such as native mobile apps

Multinational corporations, regardless of where they are based, need to adhere to the requirements in EN 301 549 if they wish to do business with European organizations.

This is just a brief summary of the common terminology that is being heard today with regard to digital accessibility legislation.  To find out more about digital accessibility lawsuits, check out:

Want help learning these rules and how to be compliant?  Let us help!


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Ryan Pugh

Ryan Pugh | Director of Accessibility | Equidox Prior to joining Equidox, Ryan Pugh served as an Access Technology Analyst for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, where he was the NFB's focal point for accessibility and usability testing. He conducted intensive web accessibility audits for compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA for numerous Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s largest online retailers, notable colleges and universities, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels and for other non-profit institutions. He also delivered accessibility training workshops and managed the NFB’s document remediation program, specializing in PDF accessibility.