Accessibility: Section 504, 508, ADA, WCAG, And You.

6 comments | Posted: 9 February 06 in General, by Matt Heerema

Many people have a little “508” link on their blogs to show that their personal journal conforms to the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, Section 508. This always makes me chuckle a little bit and wonder, “is this person a federally funded program?” This little tidbit inspired me to start writing this article. The recent news that Target is being sued by the National Federation for the Blind inspired me to finish it.

How exactly does the government legislation apply to Web sites you are creating?

Why You Should Care

8.5% of the general population has a disability that affects computer and Internet use. (U.S. Census 2000: Disability Status). Though, experts say this is a bit like asking “how many disabled people are currently riding a non-accessible bus…”

This is 8.5% of your customer base. Almost one in every tenth customer potentially would not be able to buy your product, read your content, or otherwise engage in whatever it is you have a Web site for. If this doesn’t speak to you, you aren’t a business person, or you don’t care about your message.

A Look At The Law: Rehabilitation Act of 1998 – Section 504, Section 508

Section 504

This is the blanket section, defining the scope of whom and what is included. It is only for any organization that receives federal funding. However, if they do receive federal funding, the implications are huge.

“no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States… shall, solely by reason of his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…” 29 U.S.C. Section 794

This sets the context for the law. “No discrimination” by a program or activity that receives federal funding. The specifics are laid out in Section 508.

Section 508

Under this amendment, the federal government is barred from using, maintaining, or procuring electronic goods and IT services that are not fully accessible. It also outlines 16 rules that determine accessibility as it applies to the Web. But again, these only apply to federally funded programs and activities.

ADA of 1990

Here is where we need to start paying more attention to the law. Title III of the ADA lays out an exhaustive list of entities that are subject to the ADA. Look for yourself on this list:

Title III: Place of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation is a facility whose operations affect commerce; and fall within at least one of the following 12 categories:

  1. Places of lodging (e.g., inns, hotels, motels) (except for owner-occupied establishments renting fewer than six rooms);
  2. Establishments serving food or drink (e.g., restaurants and bars);
  3. Places of exhibition or entertainment (e.g., motion picture houses, theaters, concert halls, stadiums);
  4. Places of public gathering (e.g., auditoriums, convention centers, lecture halls);
  5. Sales or rental establishments (e.g., bakeries, grocery stores, hardware stores, shopping centers);
  6. Service establishments (e.g., Laundromats, dry-cleaners, banks, barber shops, beauty shops, travel services, shoe repair services, funeral parlors, gas stations, offices of accountants or lawyers, pharmacies, insurance offices, professional offices of health care providers, hospitals);
  7. Public transportation terminals, depots, or stations (not including facilities relating to air transportation);
  8. Places of public display or collection (e.g., museums, libraries, galleries);
  9. Places of recreation (e.g., parks, zoos, amusement parks);
  10. Places of education (e.g., nursery schools, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private schools);
  11. Social service center establishments (e.g., day care centers, senior citizen centers, homeless shelters, food banks, adoption agencies);
  12. and Places of exercise or recreation (e.g., gymnasiums, health spas, bowling alleys, golf courses).

Did you see yourself here? So what must you do if you if you fall into one of these categories?

Title III is intended to provide protection to individuals with disabilities that is at least as great as that provided under title V of the Rehabilitation Act. Title V includes such provisions as section 504, which covers all the operations of Federal Executive agencies and programs receiving Federal financial assistance. Title III may not be interpreted to provide a lesser degree of protection to individuals with disabilities than is provided under section 504.

Essentially, you must do the same thing that government entities must do. Hence, section 508. However, being Section 508 compliant does not necessarily mean that you are accessible! I’ve seen too many Web sites that “validate” (which is a broken idea) as Section 508 compliant, but still aren’t accessible. Interestingly, the related court cases don’t mention Section 508, they simply ask “can the user actually use the Web site?”

An interesting list of relevant court cases involving the ADA and the Internet can be found on WebAIM’s Web site.

It’s Not About Not Being Sued!

The point of Web accessibility is to make your information and products available to anyone. It is not about some legalistic philosophy of do’s and don’ts. The point of having an accessible Web site is not so that you won’t have lawyers knocking on your door. It is so that you have the greatest chance of getting your product and message out.

Enter The WCAG

The most useful set of accessibility “rules” have absolutely no legal teeth at all (in this country). The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are put together by a volunteer group that use research and experience to put together a set of guidelines that will make a Web site usable, regardless of disability.

I wrote a synopsis of WCAG 2.0. Take a look at it to get an idea of what’s included.

Section 508 cherry picks bits and pieces from the WCAG to form its sixteen rules. It doesn’t go far enough. Conform to the WCAG, and you will most certainly meet Section 508 criteria and in fact have an accessible Web site. Incidentally, the WCAG is the standard for the European Union’s Accessibility laws, and are also gaining acceptance globally as the recognized legal standard.

In short, you don’t have to worry about complying with a set of laws; you have to consider how to make your content accessible to all users. The best way to do this is to comply with the WCAG.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 nate klaiber

    Though its true, its SO sad at how many people just dont care! When starting the planning for our church website,, I made mention of web standards, accessibility, and their benefit. When I brought up the idea of ‘what if we have a blind person visiting our website?’ I was basically told ‘do you REALLY think that will happen?’. Bluntly put, its ignorance (and one of the many reasons I backed out of the development of that site).

    Too many people interested in THEMSELVES and not the USER. Funny part is, with our church, we previously had a blind gentleman in our church.

    Personally, I think its the mindset of Web Designers that just want a ‘neat look’ or ‘marketing needs this’ type of attitude. They dont think about the audience, and when you raise questions like the above (or, what if they dont have javascript? what if popups are disabled? what if they dont have flash?), the response is almost always ‘what are the chances that someone doesnt have those?’ Its ignorance.

    Good read!

  2. 2 Robert Spangler

    I don’t know if I would say that putting a section 508 link on your site is a “broken idea.” Being that I am going to do web design, it’s my way of saying that I can design under these government restrictions. I’m not saying the site is perfect, but I’m saying that I’m not totally ignorant to the government’s requirements for accessibility.

  3. 3 Matt Heerema

    Robert – I meant the idea of accessibility validation is inherently broken. Granted, it is better than nothing, and a useful tool, but simply saying “look, this validator says I’m valid” falls truly short of the main point, which is ACTUALLY being accessible. Something you can only ascertain through user testing.

    Validation is a useful tool, but shouldn’t be a benchmark.

  4. 4 Yannick

    Another interesting and informative article Matt. Thanks! I especially liked the bit titled “It’s Not About Not Being Sued!”.

  5. 5 Chris Palle

    This is a good article added to your other article. You’re stressing some of the same points of “business sense” I’ve used to practice standards-based accessible design in my work.

    The problem has been that major browsers require “special attention” and require extra resources to track down work-arounds before we can get things rendering correctly. And so, unfortunately to that point, the necessity of performing at “business speed” will often overide the sensibilities of accessible design. Where there are good intentions, often, without a full budget, you just can’t hit every aspect.

    Perhaps a good follow-up article would be about how to avoid “Accessibility Sacrifices.” Laying up practical approaches to practical accessibility, it would be good to learn about how we can make creating accessibile sites easier and less time-consuming. Dreamweaver does make it difficult to drop an img in without adding the minimum alt tag, but does anyone know of any good tools that force accessibility as you build in real-time?

    BTW- On the point of contrasting fore/background colors, white text on input forms (such as these boxes) gets difficult to read if you have the Google bar installed. I’m in Firefox with the default installation of Google Toolbar and it makes fields it can auto-populate yellow which make this white text difficult to read.

  6. 6 Matt Heerema

    Thanks for the comments.

    An article on “practical approaches to accessibility” would certainly be interesting.

    As for changing design practices to conform to google toolbar’s quirks… no thanks.


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