508 Compliance: a Quick Guide for Site Owners

Web site content must be served in such a way that a visitor with visual or hearing impairments can consume substantially the same content, even if in alternate form. This involves images with alternative text, video and audio with closed captioning, and adjusting the page markup to cater to screen readers and other assistive technology.  

Why Accessibility Matters

Site owners want to get their message out effectively. Web site visitors have varying degrees of vision and hearing impairment, and ignoring such visitors is not fair to them, nor is it good policy or business. Happy web site visitors turn into happy customers / participants / stakeholders.

Paying attention to accessibility has a side benefit: better code and a cleaner, more intuitive design not just for impaired users, but for all of a site’s users. By considering accessibility during design and development of a web site, the end product is simply better. The underlying code is cleaner, and the content order flows more logically than it otherwise might have. This is critical for users who rely on assistive technology such as screen readers.

There are issues that affect impaired users in particular, but which - when remedied - improve the user experience for ALL users. One example of this is the all-too-common “read more” or “click here” link. These have their place, but are really only appropriate in the limited context of news headlines, events, and other similar compact lists. Considering such “headlines” boxes, which have limited space, “read more” links are still appropriate and useful, until one thinks about how repetitive this can be in the case of news items, for example. For impaired users, such links can be coded to read “Read more about {news headline title here}”, or that link could be hidden from screen readers if there is already a linked headline present, so that they do not come across two different links to the same thing. Sighted users could still see and click on “read more” in this scenario. Situations such as this require careful attention to the design and code, and are ideally handled during the initial site build, rather than retrofitting it in later on.

Legal Implications

Section 508 is an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. It extends to institutions that receive federal funds, and private businesses that do business with the federal government. As of January 18, 2018, such organizations' sites need to adhere to WCAG AA level standards. Universities have been hit by lawsuits initiated by students, or brought to the Office of Civil Rights for review and enforcement action.

In the Unites States, the Office of Civil Rights can take enforcement action against site owners whose sites are not deemed accessible enough. As of February 2018, web sites must be “AA” compliant. This should be of special concern for educational institutions and government entities, but private businesses should also pay attention, because accessibility is a basic right in the United States, Canada (via the Canadian Human Rights Act), the European Union (via its Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive) and elsewhere, and is being enforced as such.