Web accessibility, explained simply, is the practice of ensuring a website’s access to everyone, including people with disabilities. This pertains to internet websites, web applications, and digital content.
The goal is to make sure that there is equal access to those with visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, or any other disability that makes it difficult to effectively navigate and interact with digital content. Web accessibility is also referred to as digital accessibility.
If you are looking for an easy way to increase your accessibility compliance to ADA, WCAG, or Section 508, check out our accessibility widget!
ADA vs WCAG vs Section 508
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a United States federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. This law isn’t specifically directed towards digital content. The ADA guidelines apply to many other areas, such as employment, telecommunication, transportation, and public accommodations or services.
When a website or other piece of digital content is working toward ADA compliance, this almost always means following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines discussed next.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are internationally recognized guidelines that make digital content more inclusive and usable. These WCAG guidelines were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is an organization that develops and maintains web standards.
There are four principles when trying to meet WCAG requirements.
- Perceivable: Ensures information and user interface elements are presented in a way that is noticeable and understandable to all users, including those with disabilities
- Operable: Ensures a website or application is user-friendly and can be used effectively by people with various abilities
- Understandable: Ensures information is presented in a straightforward and intuitive manner. Allowing information to be interpreted reliably and without unnecessary confusion or complexity by any user
- Robust: Means creating content that remains dependable and accessible regardless of web browser, device, or assistive technology and will remain that way over time
Section 508 is a portion of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination based on disability. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make all electronic and information technology (EIT) available on government websites.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Web accessibility standards need to evolve and change as the digital landscape changes. The original WCAG guidelines were published in 1999. Since then, there has been a new set of guidelines in 2008 (WCAG 2.0). These new WCAG compliance guidelines needed to be addressed due to new information and communication technology.
Although there were mobile phones available in 1999, they were not as commonplace as today — and they were not the internet-connected, app-loaded devices we use now. WCAG 2.0 added new conformance requirements and also included a broader range of disabilities.
There is going to be another set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines due to the continuing advancement of phones and other mobile devices — and the expanse of what is considered a disability. This WCAG 2.1 will lay out new WCAG-compliant guidelines that will make content accessible to an even larger audience.
Website accessibility is crucial in today’s world. Many state and local governments have moved the majority of their forms and instructions online. This information must be accessible to everyone. Section 508 requires federal agencies to comply with WCAG guidelines, so this information is essential for them.
Federal agencies have played a major role in the promotion, implementation, and enforcement of website compliance standards and communications technology. Federal agencies will often collaborate with the private sector and advocacy groups to find different aspects or better ways to help with accessibility issues. It should be noted that any public entities or private companies that would like to receive federal funding will need to meet level AA conformance.
- Level A: This is the minimum level of conformance
- Level AA: This level addresses the most common and most significant barriers
- Level AAA: This is the highest level of conformance, addressing the most advanced and specific accessibility issues
Suggested article: Accessibility Levels: WCAG Compliance A vs. AA vs. AAA
Electronic and Information Technology
Electronic and information technology (EIT) is broad. If it involves digital information, it falls under the umbrella of EIT. This includes all creation, manipulation, storage, transmission, and retrieval of said information. It also includes a lot of hardware, software, services, and devices used in processing this information.
What’s the difference?
There are many differences when comparing ADA, WCAG, and Section 508. Here, we’ll point out some of the areas that may cause confusion for the general populace.
The ADA and Section 508 are legal requirements. They are U.S. web accessibility laws that could carry fines if sites don’t abide by them. The WCAG is a set of formal guidelines, not a set of laws, although the internationally recognized WCAG guidelines are often referenced in discussions about digital accessibility.
Scope of Application
The ADA applies to both public entities and private businesses and covers both digital and physical accessibility. Section 508 is specific to federal and government agencies or any organization receiving federal funds. WCAG should be followed by anyone who would like to make their digital content accessible.
Enforcement and Penalties
There are possible legal consequences for ADA, Section 508, and WCAG. Possible because although WCAG does not have any direct legal penalties, legal action could be taken if the inability to follow these guidelines can be proven to be discriminatory under such laws as the ADA. The ADA and Section 508 have direct legal penalties and consequences for the inability to comply.
ADA and Section 508 are United States-specific laws. WCAG is an international standard.
Challenges Regarding Accessibility
There are numerous challenges or pitfalls one can encounter when working towards accessibility compliance. Below are some of the pitfalls to be aware of when making web content accessible. Our Accessibly app can help with these challenges.
Lack of Awareness
Many people and organizations do not understand the full scope of the ADA digital accessibility requirements. This lack of awareness can lead to unintended violations.
It’s important to note that ADA requirements need to be implemented in all digital properties. Many times, websites are made accessible, but mobile apps or online documents can be missed.
Unfortunately, it’s often the case that action is not taken until legal discipline is discussed. It’s more cost-effective to ensure ADA web compliance as the content is created. Reactionary corrections can be costly.
Complexity of Compliance
The technical requirements to be ADA compliant can be overwhelming or hard to understand. Small businesses that don’t have access to lawyers or web designers may struggle to implement all of the technical specifications.
Differing Legal Landscape
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that blankets the entire United States. However, depending on your location, violations of ADA compliance may be ruled on differently in your area versus others. This can lead to confusion or non-compliance.
Lack of Knowledge
Organizations may not comply due to a lack of understanding of the WCAG standards, processes, or goals. They may think compliance is too technical or too difficult and avoid it.
Perceived High Costs
Depending on the amount of digital content that is customer-facing, the cost to meet AA compliance can be substantial. This may discourage action.
Everyone makes mistakes. However, when WCAG guidelines are misinterpreted, it can lead to improper execution of said guidelines.
When there are larger websites and lots of digital content, more money is needed to make these aspects WCAG-compliant. Businesses may not want to allocate the resources necessary, due to this.
Overlooking Digital Content
When the time and money are spent to make your website accessible to everyone, don’t forget to update all of your other digital content. Whether it’s a video, a PDF, or any other digital media, don’t forget that these also need to be updated to meet compliance.
Section 508 Challenges
Lack of Training and Knowledge
The agencies and organizations that receive federal funds must abide by Section 508. Federal employees or associated organization employees may not have the training or knowledge to implement the proper requirements of compliance.
Lots of digital content is not static and changes are made to the form or structure. If care is not taken during these changes, digital content can easily fall out of compliance.
As is often the case, third-party vendors are contracted to work on tasks for many federal agencies. These third parties must also abide by Section 508 as they are receiving federal funds. It can be challenging to ensure vendor compliance.
Some organizations may not allocate enough resources to continue compliance or pay for ongoing accessibility efforts.
When WCAG changes, Section 508 may fall behind when trying to maintain alignment with these evolving guidelines.
Hopefully, you are much more aware of the differences in ADA vs WCAG vs Section 508. This information can be confusing or overwhelming at times. Even if you have a solid grasp of the changes necessary, our Accessibly app can make sure that you don’t miss a single requirement.