Section 508 or WCAG 2.0? The Higher Education Compliance Question

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Higher education institutions are faced with a legal conundrum: do they need to be compliant? How do they comply with accessibility requirements? The newly refreshed Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which outlines online accessibility standards that federal agencies, contractors and employers must meet, comes into effect on January 18, 2018.

higher education and section 508

Section 508 and WCAG 2.0

Section 508, which is a part of the Rehabilitation Act, outlines online accessibility standards that federal agencies, contractors and employers must meet. While it does not explicitly address colleges and universities, they would be affected if they receive any funding from the federal or state government.

Some institutions have voluntarily started to comply with the regulations laid out in Section 508 to better meet the needs of their students with disabilities. Others are required to do so either because of state laws, or because they are receiving federal funding. Some federal grant programs require recipients to be Section 508 compliant. This may not be enough, however.

Miami University in Ohio, Atlantic Cape Community College and Harvard University are just a few institutions that have been slapped with lawsuits over accessibility. Students who are bringing these lawsuits are demanding that institutions of higher education adhere to the more rigorous standards set out by WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of universally accepted technical requirements produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that explains how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Version 2.0 was published on December 2008 and is the most up-to-date set of requirements for web accessibility.

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WCAG 2.0 has 12 guidelines that include testable success criteria. The guidelines are organized under four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. The testable criteria has three levels of conformance, beginning with Level A (the minimum), Level AA, and finally Level AAA. Level AA is the one most commonly used in policy and implementation procedures around the world.

Download our whitepaper How Higher Education is Failing Students with Disabilities to learn more.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Justice (DOJ) has adopted WCAG 2.0 AA as the standards that the federal government and its agencies need to comply with. It is likely that the OCR will include these standards in Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which would also apply to higher education institutions, as they offer services to the public.

Why Institutions Needs To Do More Than Be Section 508 Compliant

In 2016, the DOJ investigated the University of California (UC), Berkeley after it was sued for inaccessibility, and determined that the university was in violation of the ADA. UC, Berkeley was directed to make its content more accessible and pay damages to the students affected.

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In response, the university removed more than 20,000 lectures from its website, all of which had been previously available to the public. According to the vice chancellor for undergraduate studies, it would have been too costly to meet the demands of the DOJ to make the content accessible.

By removing all that content however, UC, Berkeley has not only broken with a long tradition of sharing educational information outside its university community, it has also signaled to its students with disabilities that it is unwilling to meet their needs.

So far, universities and colleges have followed the Section 508 standards because they have been the recipients of government funding. It is time, however, for higher education institutions to go beyond meeting the bare minimum and embrace the requirements set out in WCAG 2.0 AA.

Here’s why:

The Experience for Students with Disabilities

According to the National Center for Education Statistics1, 11 per cent of undergraduate students in the US have a disability. In a 2016 progress report, 70 per cent of all major universities in the US were found to have poor web accessibility.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics2 states that only 16.4 per cent of students with disabilities have completed a bachelor’s degree – a sharp difference compared to the 34.6 of students without a disability who finish a first degree. This gap is a product of the lack of support institutions give their students with disabilities, including the barriers they face due to web inaccessibility.

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When online material is inaccessible to students with disabilities, it limits their access to information, which in turn affects their education. This forces them onto the sidelines and significantly reduces their ability to confer and compete with their peers – simply because they lack access to the same materials. The combination of these factors severely impacts their overall higher education experience. The growth in eLearning courses and programs further necessitates the need for digital accessibility.


The Internet was not a consideration when the ADA was first passed in 1990; it has since been expanded, due in large part to lawsuits, to include digital spaces in addition to bricks and mortar locations. By taking legal action, students who face discrimination online through inaccessibility are drawing attention to how their universities and colleges are failing them.

Though there have been no statements from the DOJ, addressing web accessibility in higher education, the writing is on the wall: if you are not WCAG 2.0 compliant, and are taken to court, the chances of winning are negligible. The UC, Berkeley case is just one of many.

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Recommendations Regarding Compliance

As January 18, 2018, draws closer and the new Section 508 comes into effect, colleges and universities should review their web accessibility practices.

By complying with Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 AA requirements, higher education institutions can attract and retain their students with disabilities as they are able to provide them with the same experience and access to learning as their students without disabilities. They also put themselves ahead of the changes in law that are on the way, and preclude themselves from any lawsuits.

See how we helped Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in El Paso improve the accessibility of all digital properties which were being retrofitted to meet the requirements for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Read the case study here.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics NCES, 2016.
  2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Department of Labor, 2015.

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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