The Difference Between the ADA, Section 508, and WCAG

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The Difference Between the ADA, Section 508, and WCAG

Posted September 21, 2022


Posted September 21, 2022

An icon of a person, surrounded by three thought bubbles. The first says "ADA," the second says "Section 508," and the third says "WCAG." In the background, there is a repeating pattern of question marks
An icon of a person, surrounded by three thought bubbles. The first says "ADA," the second says "Section 508," and the third says "WCAG." In the background, there is a repeating pattern of question marks

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To build a strategy for accessibility compliance, you need to understand the basic requirements of U.S. accessibility laws, including the ADA, Section 508, and WCAG. Here’s an overview.

If you’re new to digital accessibility, you might feel overwhelmed by some of the terminology — especially when researching compliance.

Terms like “508”, “ADA”, “Title III”, and “WCAG” can be confusing if you’re trying to determine which accessibility standards apply to your business.

To build an accessibility strategy, you need to know what each term means and which ones apply to your website.

Below, we summarize the most important U.S. non-discrimination laws and explain how the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the de facto international standard for digital accessibility, relate to them.

A map of the United States behind an icon of a set of scales. On the right, there is a list of accessibility laws and technical standards

How are the ADA, WCAG, and Section 508 Different?

The ADA, WCAG, and Section 508 are all laws or guidelines on how organizations can create accessible, inclusive digital content. However, there are key differences between each one. 

Before we dive into how each standard differs from the other, let’s review what each one is.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are “open to the general public”. 

Two sections of the ADA are especially relevant to digital accessibility:

  • Title II applies to state and local governments
  • Title III applies to private businesses, non-profit organizations, and other agencies that operate “places of public accommodation.”

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), websites are “places of public accommodation” covered by Title III of the ADA. The law also applies to digital resources (like mobile apps and online documents) that are available to the public. This means most business websites should be ADA-compliant.

Title II has the same basic requirements as Title III, but contains additional requirements for assigning an ADA coordinator, evaluating accessibility, establishing grievance procedures, and other administrative functions.

The ADA and Digital Accessibility

Under the ADA, people with disabilities can file complaints against non-compliant organizations. But while ADA requires digital accessibility, it doesn’t contain any technical standards for websites. (Not a surprise considering it was written years before the internet became a fixture of our daily lives.)

To help businesses evaluate the accessibility of their websites and digital content, the DOJ recommends using WCAG and the government’s Section 508 requirements which we’ll review next.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. It applies to federal agencies, contractors, and any program that receives federal funding from the U.S. government.

In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act was amended to include Section 508, which requires agencies to “give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others.”

This addition was explicitly intended to address digital accessibility, and applies to all electronic communications including, but not limited to:  

  • Public-facing websites and mobile apps.
  • Internal and external emails.
  • PDFs and other digital documents.
  • Digital training resources.

Unlike the ADA, Section 508 contains clear accessibility standards developed by the U.S. Access Board. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is a set of guidelines designed to make digital content, including webpages, electronic documents, and mobile and web applications, more accessible to people with disabilities.

With that in mind, WCAG guidelines are organized around four guiding principles — commonly known as POUR:

  • Content should be perceivable. It shouldn't rely on a single type of sensory perception.
  • Content should be operable. You shouldn’t quire interactions that the user cannot perform.
  • Content should be understandable. Users should be able to understand the information on your website and the operation of the website’s interface.
  • Content should be robust. Your website should work with a wide variety of user agents, including screen readers and other assistive technology tools.

What are the Different WCAG Conformance Levels?

WCAG 2.2 includes 86 pass-or-fail statements called success criteria, which are organized into three levels of conformance:

  • Level A: This is the bare minimum and least strict accessibility level.
  • Level AA: This is considered to be the standard accessibility goal most organizations should aim for.
  • Level AAA: These guidelines are the most strict in terms of accessibility.

Most organizations should aim for Level AA conformance with WCAG 2.1 or 2.2 to optimize compliance with the ADA and other digital accessibility laws.

The Bottom Line

The differences between these accessibility standards boil down to two things:

  • Audience: Section 508 applies to federal agencies and departments; the ADA applies to the majority of businesses in both public and private sectors. WCAG isn’t an accessibility law; rather, WCAG acts as a guide for businesses looking to build an accessible website to meet Section 508 and ADA compliance standards.
  • Use: The use of each accessibility standard is different as well. For example, Section 508 ensures individuals with disabilities who are interacting with the federal government in online spaces can do so. The ADA ensures that disabled users have the same opportunities as non-disabled users and are not discriminated against. Finally, WCAG acts as a resource for organizations looking to increase compliance.

Though each standard is different, they’re all designed to provide equal access to the disability community and create a more accessible experience for all.

Who Does ADA, WCAG, and Section 508 Affect?

Each accessibility standard affects different business entities.

For example, the ADA mandates that organizations, nonprofits, and local and state governments follow digital accessibility guidelines. Section 508, on the other hand, is only applicable to federal agencies or federal departments. These entities must ensure their operations are compliant with 508 standards or risk legal consequences, loss of reputation, and more.

WCAG is a bit different. WCAG is not a law or accessibility requirement, which means your website does not have to conform with WCAG. Instead, WCAG should be used as a guide or checklist to achieving ADA or Section 508 compliance.

A stylized web page, with a magnifying glass hovering over an accessibility icon

How Do I Become ADA, WCAG, and 508 Compliant?

Ensuring your digital content is compliant with ADA and Section 508 and conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA is critical for fostering inclusivity and accessibility for all users — regardless of their abilities.

The first step to compliance is testing how accessible your current site is. You can do this with AudioEye. For example, our Expert Audit provides a comprehensive picture of your site’s existing accessibility. We rely on the expertise of our human testers — all of whom are real assistive technology users — who test your pages and identify usability issues or accessibility issues. 

AudioEye also provides Active Monitoring which conducts routine audits of your site, enabling you to find and fix accessibility issues before they impact users. This also helps you meet ADA and Section 508 compliance standards and conform with WCAG standards.

Conducting regular accessibility audits can also help you eliminate the most common digital accessibility errors, including:

Next Steps to Improve Your Website’s Accessibility

One of the biggest challenges in digital accessibility is the fact that websites are always changing. Whether it’s new content being added or personalization based on user actions and preferences, websites rarely stay the same for long. This makes complying with ADA and Section 508 accessibility requirements especially challenging. 

To stay on top of changing accessibility guidelines, it’s critical to regularly test your website’s accessibility — a task we know can be time- and cost-prohibitive for people alone. That’s where AudioEye comes in.

Our Automated Accessibility Platform features more than 400 accessibility tests and 70 automated fixes that allow us to solve common accessibility issues in real-time. Anything that can’t be fixed by our software is handled by our team of human experts. Our team conducts in-depth testing of your digital content for more complex accessibility issues and provides guidance for remediation. The speed of our accessibility scanner coupled with the experience of our human testers streamline your path to ADA and Section 508 compliance, WCAG conformance, and enhanced website accessibility.

Want to identify and fix accessibility issues that may be affecting your customers? Get started with a free scan of your website.

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