What Is SECTION 508 VERSUS WCAG and Does It Matter?
Keywords: Section 508, WCAG, Web Content Accessibility, Section 508 Law, Section 508 Remediation
Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) are often confused. Many people think that they are, in fact, the same. They are different, and this article will have to explain the differences.
When asked, people seem to be confused about what is Section 508 and what is WCAG. The confusion is understandable, but people who deal with this topic are best to know the differences. For those who have an understanding that the terms are interchangeable, read on as Section 508 and WCAG are, in fact, quite different.
First, here is some history that will help explain the differences and explain the confusion between Section 508 and WCAG.
Section 508 Historical Summary
In 1986, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 received an update, and Section 508 became federal law. It is important to note at this point that Section 508 is law in the United States. In 1986 the rate of technological advances was happening at a speed that people with disabilities were having a hard time keeping up with accessing digital information. So, the addition of Section 508 was established to address these issues.
Historically speaking, the initial adoption of Section 508 was largely unsuccessful. It was terrific that the law now protected people with disabilities, but the law lacked any effective enforcement and clear guidelines for remediation. 1998, Congress address Section 508 again with an update. They updated the law to hold federal agencies accountable and required electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities.
In 2017, the U.S. Access Board — an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities — worked to refresh Section 508 again. The update included several standards, guidelines for federal agencies and those receiving federal funds. This refresh, which went into effect in 2018, introduced enhanced standards and policies that encompass various technologies and how people access digital information.
To emphasize what Section 508 is, it important to stress that Section 508 is United States federal law. This law requires federal agencies and those receiving federal funds to acquire, develop, use, and maintain information and communications so people with disabilities can access it. This is proper as we want an inclusive society.
WCAG Historical Summary
January 1, 1983 is considered the birth of the Internet. Before this date, the various computer networks did not have a standard way of communicating. After this date, all networks could now be connected by a universal language. This communications protocol is called Transfer Control Protocol/Internetwork Protocol (TCP/IP).
In the early days, universities and the government used the network. I did not become available to the public until the 1990s. The Internet of the 1990s was not like the Internet we use today. It was slow and clumsy, but even then, a group of thoughtful people realized that this new platform excluded people with disabilities. These early architects of the Internet wanted the network to be inclusive. They formed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). In 1999 they published the first set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). We are all better off for their guidance.
Through WCAG, WAI introduced a formal set of globally recognized guidelines. It is important to note that these guidelines are global in nature. The guidelines are intended to support access to Internet content. The guidelines help to make Internet content accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Developing such guidelines is a significant undertaking. What makes this task particularly challenging is how quickly technology advances. The guidelines are continually studied and improved. There has been a WCAG 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1, with 2.2 expected this summer. The draft of WCAG 3.0 has also been published for people to review and to provide feedback.
To summarize, WCAG is a set of guidelines. These guidelines are essential and well recognized and help people understand how to make their websites, online apps, electronic documents, information, and content accessible to people of varying abilities.
Since the differences are so apparent, then why the confusion? There should not be any confusion but let’s provide a summary for added clarity.
- In the United States, Section 508 is a set of standards, and Section 508 is federal law.
- WCAG is a set of guidelines that are recognized around the world.
- Section 508 incorporated WCAG as the federal standard for website and app accessibility.
The 2018 update of Section 508 enhanced the requirements for information and communication technology. This update adopted WCAG 2.0 as the standard for websites, electronic documents, and software accessibility. Federal agencies and organizations receiving federal funds must follow the guidelines because they’re part of the law.
Some people confuse 508 and WCAG as interchangeable terms since one requires compliance with the other.
What about the private sector?
You may not be legally required to conform to Section 508. However, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to private sector organizations. Our court system uses WCAG to measure website and app accessibility in digital-based lawsuits.
WCAG compliance is important to the Internet and needs to be important to your organization if your organization puts materials on the Internet or uses the Internet to communicate.
The court ruled in 2017 on a case involving Winn-Dixie about their website. A Florida judge ruled that the grocery chain, Winn-Dixie, must update its website to meet the WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards. This is the first trial regarding a website’s accessibility under the American Disability Act.
In another example, Domino’s Pizza also was deemed to not be following the law. In October 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court made that clear. The high court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that the Domino’s Pizza website ran afoul of the ADA, underscoring that the ADA does, in fact, apply to business websites. In this case, a blind man’s lawsuit claimed Domino’s did not provide accommodations for him to order pizza online.
Let’s be clear on the differences between Section 508 and WCAG. It’s essential to understand the differences and abide by the rules for a more inclusive society.