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Accessibility for the Web: What You Need to Know

Section 508, WCAG, ADA and more Demystified

There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about what website accessibility is and what rules and standards apply to which types of organizations. We've gone through the existing laws, standards and information and distilled it for you to make it easier to understand how Web accessibility affects you and your website users. This includes Section 508, ADA, WCAG Standards (Levels A-AAA) and more, including details on timing and applications to different industries.

Web accessibility is a logical progression from other laws and regulations protecting people with disabilities from accessing that which is publicly available, including the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act. The purpose of making websites accessible is to provide equal access to electronic information for everyone. This includes people with visual, auditory, motor and other disabilities.

This means that website accessibility for the visually impaired is not solely for blind users. There are a lot of requirements which allow those which are otherwise visually impaired to more easily read text, consume video content, and otherwise access web-based content.

Key Concepts of Web Accessibility

The primary components that you need to take into account when making a site accessible can be put into four primary categories:

  1. Visual/Audio Content: Provide equivalent alternatives for images, videos, and audio content.

  2. Color: Don’t rely on color alone to communicate. Maintain high contrast between text and background colors.

  3. User Control: Give users control over navigating, scrolling and timed content. Provide tab controls where applicable. 

  4. Information Display: Ensure content can be understood without style sheets. Provide table headers to make tables easy to understand.

A Brief Glossary:

Let’s also get to know some of the key terms that are involved in web accessibility. As with most things which deal with fairly technical terminology, there are often terms which get inappropriately applied. For instance, many times commercial entities will refer to “Section 508 compliance” when that law does not specifically apply to them. Here’s a brief rundown of the terms which will explore in more depth in a bit:

  • Rehabilitation Act (1973)

    • Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, added in 1998 and specifically addresses website accessibility for federal agency websites.

  • Section 508

    • A series of standards within the Rehabilitation Act (1974) that provides three levels of compliance (levels A to AAA) of how to provide an accessible website.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

    • Relates more to the built environment than digital. Doesn’t specifically dictate standards for website accessibility. Despite this, a famous lawsuit against raised issues for all brands on the Web.

  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

    • An international community that works together to develop web standards, including HTML, CSS, XML and WCAG.

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

    • Accessibility standards initiated by W3C in the late 1990s. These guidelines outline 3 levels (A, AA, and AAA of accessibility compliance. We’re currently in version 2.0 of the WCAG.

Levels of Compliance

How accessible is your site? The World Wide Web Consortium created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in order to allow people to measure their website’s level of accessibility. This measurement has (3) levels:

  • A (Minimum Level of Compliance)

    • EXAMPLES: Provide text alternatives, allow keyboard control of navigation

  • AA (Target level for the January 18, 2018 deadline --we’ll discuss this in a little bit)

    • EXAMPLES: Provide captions for video, use minimum level of color contrast, no images of text, use menus, icons and buttons consistently

  • AAA (Maximum Level of Compliance)

    • EXAMPLES: Provide sign language for videos, captions for live audio,increased color contrast, every link’s purpose is clear from text, don’t automatically play sound/video

How does it affect industries?

Different industries and types of organizations are affected by web accessibility in different ways. Let’s review a few to provide some examples.


All federal agencies will be required to comply with the revised Section 508

standards beginning on January 18, 2018. Section 508 doesn’t apply to a private sector Web site unless such site is provided under contract to a covered entity. When a Federal agency contracts w/ an organization to make information available to the public on a website, the portion of the site devoted to fulfilling the contractual obligation is subject to Section 508. The firm's general Web site, or the portion not devoted to the contracted study, would not be subject to Section 508.

There are a few federal exceptions. For instance, a Federal agency does not have to

comply with the technology accessibility standards if it would impose an undue burden to do so. Section 508 contains a limited exemption for national security systems (military command, weaponry, intelligence) as defined by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

States can make individual exceptions and rules as well. For instance, in the state of Virginia, all state colleges, universities, and agencies must comply with Section 508 and any additional requirements set forth by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA).


Depending on the reasons for receiving Federal funding, other organizations such as schools may be required to comply with Section 508. A good way to look at it might be that if the Rehabilitation Act applies to a particular organization, then that organization is probably bound by the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act. Because Section is a part of the Rehabilitation Act, it can be assumed that the rules of Section 508 should be followed.


Title III of the ADA does not provide civil penalties for violations of the act but does permit private rights of action and allows individuals to bring enforcement actions and seek injunctive relief. 42 U.S.C. § 12188. Private companies are not required by law to be 508 compliant. Despite this, they can get into legal issues for not providing equal access to their customers. One example is that Target was sued (and settled for $6 million) in a class action lawsuit for not meeting the needs of blind users of

Be Prepared for 2018

It is important to understand the implications of the Department of Justice’s recent settlement with Peapod, the nation’s largest grocery delivery service, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This settlement cites Title III of the ADA as justification for Peapod to provide a compliant site, and remediation requires it to achieve Level AA of the WCAG 2.0. The DOJ is expected to announce a set of requirements for non-public websites in April of 2018. While the exact details of this are not known, many speculate that it will require many consumer-facing websites to be WCAG 2.0 Level “AA” compliant.

How do you prepare?

Do you need help making your website compliant with WCAG 2.0 standards? There are a few things that you can do:

  • Review the WCAG 2.0 guidelines to have a good understanding of what will be required. Learn to understand the differences.

  • See where you stand with your current site by using accessibility checkers and assessment tools. There are several tools available ranging from basic free tools to more robust ones that are subscription-based.

  • Ensure compliance while you’re developing you’re new website by incorporating an accessible approach while planning and designing.  

Siteimprove, the industry-leading provider of comprehensive web accessibility testing software and services,  can greatly help you in this effort. The Siteimprove Intelligence Platform provides clear explanations of potential issues, combined with practical recommendations to work toward accessibility compliance for your website – so you know exactly what you’re fixing and why. Not only can the Siteimprove Intelligence Platform be used in the development phase prior to launch, you can also utilize the intelligent automation software to maintain compliance of your website post-launch.

While a lot of the heavy lifting to make a site compliant occurs during the design and development phases, if you have a Content Management System (CMS) and a lot of content contributors, it’s quite possible that non-compliant content could get entered. For instance, unless your CMS requires it, someone could add an image to your site without alternate text (otherwise known as “alt” text or tags). This will throw an error because WCAG guidelines require alternate text for any images.


Let’s recap a bit what we learned. There was quite a bit of information flowing there, so here are the highlights: 

  • The Rehabilitation Act, Section 508 regulates accessibility for federal agencies & websites funded by federal agencies. It currently says that these websites must be WCAG 2.0 Level “AA” compliant by January 18, 2018.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates accessibility for corporations & private companies. When the Department of Justice makes an announcement on requirements for non-government entity websites, it will be related to ADA.

  • The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) v 2.0 are the agreed upon International standards for accessibility created by the W3C. Review these to understand how to make your website compliant.

So for any non-government entities, make sure you pay attention to the upcoming 2018 announcement by the Department of Justice. In the meantime, assess your site to see where you currently fall according to the WCAG Guidelines. Finally, if you’re planning a new website, you need to take accessibility into account.

Download our Web Accessibility Guidelines PDF to share with others.