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Web Accessibility Background

WCAG & ADA/Sect 508 Website Accessibility Overview

To some, the legal requirement that practically all websites must be accessible to people with disabilities may come as a surprise. However, as the web has become intrinsic to every day life, its universal access has fallen under civil rights protection.

Relative to website accessibility, there are two governing laws. Title II of the American Disabilities Act governs private entities, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act governs publicly funded entities. In terms of conformity guidelines, both refer to the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2. 0 (pronounced wuh-kag). The guidelines come in three degrees (A, AA, AAA). The commonly acceptable level of conformity has been WCAG 2.0 A, AA, however WCAG version 2.1, published June 2018, will replace it.



The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act via Title III requires that all "places of public accommodation" (retailers, doctors, malls, restaurants, hotels, and ski resorts) provide facilities and equipment that are readily accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities.  Through litigation and public policy, proponents have worked to extend access from the physical world to the web.

Although the Dept of Justice has delayed official rule making (since 2010 with no current date set) to state with clarity its standard for accessibility, the DOJ and others refer to the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2. 0.  



Sect 508 has evolved more consistently with technology. In 1998 Congress amended the act to ensure electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Then most recently, on Jan 18, 2007 the Access Board issued a final rule that establishes that all information and communications technology meet Level A and AA success criteria of the W3C's Web Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2. 0. The board gave 12 months for entities to comply, so all municipalities, public schools, public institutions, or those that simply receive federal assistance, which includes practically every college and university in the country, must all be compliant by January 2018. 



Likely not. Unless you specifically contracted for ADA compliance and have had a WCAG audit to confirm, assume it is not. Achieving ADA compliance requires a concerted effort in the design, development, and content writing from beginning to end.



The standards break down to 4 basic principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust. The following overview includes limited examples for the sake of providing an "overview". Refer to the WCAG 2.1 for all details.


Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can't be invisible to the senses).

  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content (alt text for images is the most common violation).
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.


Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.

This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform). A perfect example would be to ensure the website can be used without a mouse.

  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.


Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.

This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface. The content must flow in a sequential and logical fashion for people using keyboard only or a screen reader for example.

  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

This means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible)

  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.



There are three steps to producing a thorough audit for website accessibility. Depending on budget and level of risk management, one may choose to use just one or all three. 


Automated Testing

This provides a litmus test and captures only ~26% of issue types. There are many WCAG software tools available. You get what you pay for. But DO NOT rely only on automated testing, because WCAG is nuanced and interpretive - which makes it difficult for software to be effective. 


Manual Code Testing

Here someone with an understanding of both WCAG 2.1 and website code can catch much that is missed by automated testing. 


Assistive Technology Testing

For those seeking the most thorough accessibility, the tester uses the actual tools (JAWS, ZOOM test, NVDA, Dragon Natural Speaking, etc) used by those with disabilities to use the website. 


The key result of an audit is the reporting that will guide remediation, and provide documentation of you efforts. This can only come from a qualified 508/ADA/WCAG website consultant. Automated testing can tell you where the issue is, but not how to fix it.



Depending on where you are in the lifecycle of your website, your choice is to either build a new WCAG compliant website, or to remediate your current website.

To make your current site meet ADA and/or Section 508 requirements takes teamwork with either your current developer, or a developer with experience in both WCAG conformity AND the CMS/platform that your current website is built on. For this reason, if you have a good relationship with your current development team, stick with them. With the help of your WCAG consultant with audit reporting that includes line-by-line guidance for remediation, your team should be able to simply implement those recommendations. That process will provide excellent training to ensure that issues are avoided in the future.

It will take more than one round of audit and remediation generally to catch and remediate all issues. 

After the initial remediation is complete, anyone updating the site will need to be trained to maintain conformity. Periodic audits (quarterly or bi-annual) is recommended.