How are ADA and Section 508 different?

How are ADA and Section 508 different

Many policies and individual litigation have an effect on the legal landscape of online accessibility making it complex. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act place mandates businesses to make their websites and other digital content accessible to people with disabilities. This blog illustrates the differences between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 with the steps you can take to comply with both laws.

What is the ADA?

Visual illustration of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a U.S civil rights law that has been in effect since 1990 and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. The ADA is far more comprehensive than Section 508, since it applies to both commercial and government organizations and mandates equal access to jobs and physical locations.

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act forbids discrimination in “public accommodations”. Online assets, such as websites, might be deemed places of public accommodation, even if web accessibility is not directly stated in its text. This implies you may be charged with discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act if your website’s content is inaccessible. In short, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does indeed apply to online content.

What is Section 508?

Visual illustration of Section Visual illustration of 508

Part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, Section 508 is about making sure that people with disabilities may use public accommodations. Information and communications technology (ICT) must be developed and used by federal agencies in the United States to make it accessible to individuals with disabilities in accordance with federal law. The term “information and communication technologies” (ICT) encompasses not just computers and the internet, but also electronic documents (like PDFs), multimedia content, telephones, and contact centers.

Only federal agencies and departments are subject to Section 508, which guarantees equal access to federal agency resources for individuals with disabilities. Companies doing business with the federal government will also fall under the purview of the act. Section 504 of the act, which is related to Section 502, applies similarly to institutions that receive federal financing, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, and more.

Should you make your site ADA and Section 508 compliant?

Federal agencies risk losing funding and businesses risk losing contracts if they do not comply with Section 508 rules. Even if your company isn’t a federal government contractor, the ADA still requires you to provide accessible websites and information. Failure to comply with the ADA may result in expensive lawsuits that can damage an organization’s reputation.

Most obviously, persons with disabilities will be wrongfully denied access to online products and services if the ADA and Section 508 aren’t followed. Not to mention the damage done to a company’s bottom line by alienating a group of customers who along with their extended social networks, account for more than $13 trillion in annual consumer expenditure worldwide.

How can you guarantee that everyone is able to use your online services and products? The WCAG guidelines are now considered the best practice for making websites accessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG Conformance

The Online Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of technical requirements designed to make websites and web applications more accessible to persons with sensory, cognitive, physical, and visual impairments. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) success criteria are broken down into three tiers: A, AA, and AAA. Each successive level improves upon and incorporates the preceding one, such as:

Level A stands for the most fundamental level of accessibility, and Level AAA stands for the highest level of accessibility possible. It is strongly recommended that businesses adhere to the standards set out by at least the AA rating.

While the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) do not itself constitute legislation, they are meant to be in harmony with statutory mandates. In fact, the updated Section 508 specifically references WCAG 2.0 AA as the accessibility standard to which federal agencies must adhere. Although WCAG isn’t specifically mentioned in the ADA, it has been cited in recent Department of Justice guidance on the subject. Not only that, but WCAG 2.1 AA has been referenced in recent ADA enforcement actions taken by the DOJ.

As mentioned above, the WCAG standards are always being revised and updated to provide more clarity and granularity. While Section 508 makes reference to WCAG 2.0, the W3C has released two new versions of the guidelines since then. Since WCAG 2.2 has not been published as of this writing, we advise that businesses stick to the guidelines established in the 2.1 edition. Read our WCAG 2.1 Checklist for additional information on how to achieve compliance with WCAG.

At AEL Data, we have a team of specialists who carefully audit each web page to identify issues and remediate them. We also offer post-project transition support plans to ease your team into tackling issues when you go live.

Picture of Aditya Bikkani

Aditya Bikkani

Aditya is the COO of AELData, a growing technology company in the Digital Publishing and Education sectors. He is also an entrepreneur and founder of an accessibility tool called LERA. A W3C COGA (Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility) Community Member Aditya contributes to researching methodologies to improve web accessibility and usability for people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

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