ADA vs. Section 508: What’s the Difference?

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The law relating to web accessibility can be complex, with many different regulations and private lawsuits impacting the legal landscape. You may have heard about digital accessibility responsibilities under the ADA or Section 508. In this article, we’ll break down ADA vs. Section 508 to help you understand your responsibilities and how to achieve compliance.

What is Section 508?

Section 508 refers to a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It is a U.S. federal law that mandates that federal agencies create and use information and communications technology (ICT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. The definition of ICT includes software and websites, electronic documents (such as PDFs), multimedia content, phones, call centers, and more—anything that people may use in order to access federal services.

Section 508 applies only to federal agencies and departments, ensuring all people with disabilities can use federal agency resources. It may also apply to organizations doing business with federal agencies. A closely related section of the act, Section 504, similarly applies to entities that receive federal funding, such as schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, and more.

Learn more about Section 508 and how it relates to web content.

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a U.S. civil rights law passed in 1990 that protects people from discrimination on the basis of disability. The ADA is a much broader law than Section 508, applying to any business in the private and public sector, and mandating equal access to employment opportunities and to physical spaces, for example. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and case law interpretation of the ADA have determined that it also applies to digital content. The ADA’s Title III prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodations.” While web accessibility is not explicitly mentioned in its language, legal rulings have determined that online assets, such as websites, can be considered places of public accommodation. This means if your web content is not accessible, you can face an ADA discrimination lawsuit.

Learn more about ADA compliance and how it applies to web content.

Making your site ADA and Section 508 compliant

Non-compliance with Section 508 web accessibility  requirements can result in loss of funding for federal agencies, and can put product companies’ contracts with those agencies in jeopardy. And if your business isn’t a vendor of the federal government, you will likely still be required to make your websites and web content accessible in order to comply with the ADA. ADA non-compliance can result in reputation-damaging lawsuits and the legal fees that come with them.

Of course, the most significant consequence of non-compliance with the ADA or Section 508 is the wrongful exclusion of people with disabilities from access to online goods and services. And that’s not to mention the negative business impacts of excluding a consumer base who, along with their friends and family, control over $13 trillion in spending, globally. 

So, how do you make sure your websites, software, apps, and other web content can be accessed by all? Currently, the gold standard for web accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

Avoiding penalties: WCAG conformance

WCAG provides technical specifications to improve the accessibility of web content, websites, and web applications for people with a wide range of disabilities including auditory, cognitive, physical, and visual. WCAG success criteria are categorized into three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Each level includes and builds on the previous one, with Level A representing basic accessibility and Level AAA representing excellent accessibility. It is recommended that organizations conform to at least level AA criteria.

While WCAG standards do not constitute the law, they are designed to align with legal requirements, and in fact the refresh of Section 508 cites conformance with WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard of accessibility to which federal organizations must conform. The ADA does not mention WCAG explicitly, but the latest DOJ Guidance on ADA has referenced WCAG. In addition, recent DOJ enforcements of the ADA have cited WCAG version 2.1 AA.

As is noticeable in the previous paragraph, the WCAG standards continue to evolve, with each version improving on the previous by adding specifications or broadening the scope. Though Section 508 cites WCAG 2.0, the W3C has updated the WCAG standards twice since then. The most recent version, WCAG 2.2 has not yet been released, so we recommend organizations follow the specifications outlined in WCAG 2.1. For more details on how to conform with WCAG, read our WCAG 2.1 Checklist.

Learn more about WCAG conformance levels.

How eSSENTIAL Accessibility helps

Together, the ADA and Section 508 help ensure that no business or agency, whether in the public or private sector, excludes individuals with disabilities from access to online content. But in the journey to an accessible internet, these laws only represent the destination. WCAG provides a roadmap to getting there. By conforming to WCAG 2.1, you’re well on your way to legal compliance.

So how can you achieve WCAG 2.1 conformance? The eSSENTIAL Accessibility solution combines comprehensive automated and manual evaluation, an accessibility-forward approach to the design process, remediation support, legal support, and more. Learn more about eSSENTIAL Accessibility’s accessibility solution today.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
  2. Visit our resources section to download free white papers and webinars, and find our newest blogs on industry trends.
  3. Connect with us to continue the conversation on Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

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