Section 508 Compliance and WCAG – All You Need to Know

Web accessibility is a hot topic. Section 508 and WCAG are the most often occuring definitions connected to it. Learn about them.

In the next series of articles we will talk about website accessibility, 508 compliance and WCAG which are some of the hottest topics lately. We’ve noticed that there is plenty of information on the web about the law, legal requirements and best practices regarding web accessibility. Boring maybe but essential definitely. It is clear that due to the pace of the industry we are in, there is always something changing, raising new questions and demanding adjustments.

  • We’ll do our best to provide you with the latest information about web accessability; highlight the keypoints;
  • We will also discuss some vague terms, questions and give our opinion on these;

First, we will start off by explaining what Section 508 compliance and WCAG are – two of the most (re)searched terms, related to web accessability.

Section 508

Let’s start  by throwing some light on things you need to know about Section 508.

What is Section 508 and 508 Compliance?

Section 508 is part of the Rehabilititation Act of 1973, which is a Federal Law in the USA. This act put special emphasis on services to those with the most severe disabilities, to expand special Federal responsibilities and research and training programs with respect to individuals with disabilities, to establish special responsibilities in the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for coordination of all programs with respect to individuals with disabilities within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and for other purposes.” (Wikipedia, Rehabilitation Act of 1973). In short,

“It deals with accessability requirements for electronic and information technology (public), for people with disabilities”

Section 508 particularly deals with requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the Federal government. It requires Federal electronic and IT to be accessible to people with disabilities. That includes employees and members of the public. Therefore, it’s a section, applicable also to websites of agencies and institutions, including:

  • government agencies
  • federal-funded nonprofits
  • public higher education institutions
  • public K-12 schools (primary and secondary schools)

What about private businesses?

As yet, there is nothing in Section 508 that requires private websites to comply unless they are receiving federal funds or under contract with a federal agency.

Commercial best practices include voluntary standards and guidelines as the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Still, automatic accessibility checkers (engines) such as “IBM Rational Policy Tester” and AccVerify, refer to Section 508 guidelines but have difficulty in accurately testing content for accessibility. (Wikipedia)

In the recent years…

In 2006, the United States Access Board organized the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) to review and recommend updates to its Section 508 standards. In February 2015, the Board released a notice of proposed rulemaking for the Section 508 standards. Legislatures rely on rulemaking to add more detailed scientific, economic, or industry expertise to a policy—fleshing out the broader mandates of authorizing legislation. For example, typically a legislature would pass a law mandating the establishment of safe drinking water standards, and then assign an agency to develop the list of contaminants and safe levels through rulemaking.

We interpret these actions as an attempt to create clearer, concrete rules and guidelines for compliance with Section 508. Furthermore, there have indeed been numerous cases in which ogranizations have been taken to court and prosecuted, due in part to a lack of clear rules for web accessibility. Many times parties CAN argue that a websites actually meets these requirements. The next struggle is, when the court has to deal with the arguments of both sides and take a decision.

In short, the parties expect clarity on the requirements set by Section 508 and how to apply, check and monitor them. Obviously this explains very well the delay in releasing these rules and taking the time to formulate them.

Which information technology system and websites are accessible?

“One that can be operated in a variety of ways and does not rely on a single sense/ ability of the user. For example, a system that provides output only in visual format may not be accessible to people with visual impairments, and a system that provides output only in audio format may not be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some individuals with disabilities may need accessibility-related software…”

In a nutshell, when websites are 508 Compliant, they are accessible to all users. Therefore, they have to be compatible with assistive technology, such as screen readers.

You can also read more about 508 compliance at the official page for Section 508. In our next article you will also learn more about how to create a 508 compliant website, no matter if you are obliged to create such a website, or you’ve taken the decision to make your websites more accessible for all the users out there.

So far – so good. Let’s move on now to WCAG – what it means, who develops it and who it’s meant for.

What is WCAG?

WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It’s developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. The goal is to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility meeting the needs of individuals and organizations internationally.

Who WCAG is for?

WCAG is for:

  • Web content developers (page authors, site designers, etc.)
  • Authoring tool developers
  • Web accessibility evaluation tool developers
  • Others who want or need a standard for web accessibility, including for mobile accessibility

WCAG 2.0 is a stable, referenceable technical standard. It has 12 guidelines and for each guideline, there are testable success criteria: A, AA, and AAA. They build on each other, meaning Level A requirements are the most crucial ones.

WCAG 2.1 is currently in development and is scheduled to be published as a standard in 2018. The primary focus for WCAG 2.1 is accessibility requirements for people with low vision and cognitive and learning disabilities, and mobile accessibility.

Who develops WCAG?

The WCAG technical documents are developed by the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG(formerly WCAG Working Group ), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative presents the international standard of accessibility guidelines.

To put it in simple terms, WCAG is the international standard for accessibility requirements, whereas Section 508 is part of USA’s requirements. It concerns public technology and websites accessibility for people with disabilities. At the same time, Section 508, adopts and tries to correspond with the practices lauded by WCAG.

More about 508 Compliance and how to create 508 complaint website?

We hope you find this information useful, in our next article we will focus on how to create 508 compliant website, which will be particularly helpful for your designers and developers.

See you next time, and don’t forget to shoot some questions below!


htmlBurger team

Leave a Comment