Future of Section 508, 504, and ADA Guided by WCAG

November 13, 2013 BY SHANNON K. MURPHY
Updated: December 6, 2021

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s collection of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is quickly becoming the international standard for web accessibility. Those new to accessibility may not realize that while the WCAG is the most comprehensive guide, it has no legal backing in the United States. The recommendations of accessibility experts are strikingly different from what is legally required or suggested by accessibility law.

Because of this, web accessibility is difficult to understand and the requirements are often confusing. Keep reading to learn how the WCAG standard compares with Section 508 and how it relates to Section 504 and the ADA. This blog post should help you cut through the myriad accessibility standards and laws to get a better understanding of what is actually required and what is coming down the pike.

Section 504: Broad Anti-Discrimination Law

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act does not reference the WCAG. This is because it was part of the Rehabilitation Act, drafted in 1973. The web didn’t exist, so technology was not its focus. To clarify, section 504 is a broad anti-discrimination mandate, which sets the context for accessibility law. Section 504 asserts that disabled individuals must have equal access to all programs, services and activities receiving federal subsidy. The specifics of electronic information are extrapolated in Section 508 which was added in 1986 and updated in 1998.

Section 508 vs. WCAG Online Accessibility Standards

Download the white paper: Sections 508 and 504: Closed Captioning and Web Accessibility Requirements

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that electronic information from government agencies and municipalities be made accessible to those with disabilities. Employees of such agencies with disabilities should also have equal access to information.

Section 508 includes a set of standard technical specifications for web accessibility. While Section 508 has been heavily influenced by WCAG standards, it only adopted a portion of the guidelines. The WCAG is far more detailed and comprehensive. Also, the WCAG gives levels of compliance and testable provisions, whereas Section 508 only assigns a simple “pass” or “fail” for criteria.

As with some other U.S. accessibility laws, Section 508 has not been updated to account for new technology. When the 508 standards were released in 2000, they focused predominately on websites. Advances in hardware and software have resulted in many products that must be made accessible to assistive technology devices.

Summary of Section 508 Web Accessibility Standards

Despite its limitations, Section 508 provides instruction on how to “clean up” your site and create a more universally enjoyable experience. Section 508 is a good starting point for an accessibility audit and all sites should meet these criteria at a minimum.

  1. Text equivalent shall be provided for every non-text element.
  2. Equivalent alternatives shall be provided for any multimedia presentation, synched with the presentation.
  3. Information conveyed with color must also be made available without color.
  4. Documents shall be readable without an associated style sheet.
  5. Text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
  6. Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps, except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
  7. Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
  8. Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables with two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
  9. Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
  10. Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker (frequency 2 Hz – 55 Hz).
  11. A text-only page, with equivalent and up-to-date information, shall be provided when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way.
  12. When utilizing scripting languages to display content or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text so that it can be read with assistive technology.
  13. When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in, or other application be present to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet.
  14. Electronic forms shall be designed to allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality as to complete and submit the form, including directions and cues.
  15. A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
  16. When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

Section 508 Refresh and WCAG Legal Backing

Section 508 standards were published in 2000 when most web pages were static HTML without dynamic media. Thirteen years later, websites are so much more complex and important, while Section 508 standards remain unchanged.

But not for long. The U. S. Access Board has proposed a refresh of Section 508 that will cover more documents, more technology, and more people. The Access Board proposes directly referencing the WCAG 2.0 level A and AA success criteria, not only for web content but also for web applications, software, and documents.

The case for WCAG is steadily becoming stronger. Why? While Section 508 standards only have bearing in the U.S., the growing availability of global goods and services means the need for a worldwide web accessibility standard is greater than ever. This will create clearer communication and openness across platforms, devices, and languages. The WCAG standard has been adopted by many U.S. educational institutions, as well as the European Union for all E.U.-commissioned websites. Furthermore, 14 countries have either adopted or referenced the WCAG in their legal standards. The WCAG has accumulated so much worldwide momentum that it will inevitably influence all near term laws and standards.

Will ADA Title III Adopt the WCAG?

Another American accessibility law that may give the WCAG teeth is Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III is intended to provide protection to individuals with disabilities. Those with disabilities cannot be barred access from a “place of public accommodation” or a facility whose operations affect commerce. There are 12 categories covered by ADA Title III.

Written in 1990, the ADA’s language primarily addresses physical establishments, but with so many of these same services being offered online, Title III is in need of an update. The Department of Justice will be revisiting ADA Title III to examine the critical role of technology in American life, broadening which entities are considered places of public accommodation. This is where the WCAG is poised to become the new standard. In fact, in the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Department of Justice, referring to the impending 508 refresh, asked: “Should the Department adopt the WCAG 2.0´s ‘Level AA Success Criteria’ as its standard for website accessibility for entities covered by titles II and III of the ADA?”

Download the brief: How the ADA Impacts Video Accessibility for relevant court cases involving the ADA and online content.


Accessibility court cases generally don’t mention Section 508 or any other accessibility standards, but instead ask: “Can the user actually use the Web site?” So, can a blind user use your website? Can a deaf user use your website? A user with a mobility disability? Keeping in mind that users have different needs, this simple question helps create accessible sites and apps from the ground up. Being legally compliant isn’t necessarily good enough, or won’t be for long. Instead, look to WCAG 2.0 to ensure that the highest standards for web accessibility are being met.

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