508 and WCAG: What’s the Difference?

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Are you confused about the difference between Section 508 and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)? You’re not alone. 

Many people think these terms are interchangeable, but they’re actually different. 

Let’s dive in and untangle the world of Section 508 and WCAG!

What’s the difference?

The main difference between the two is:

  • Section 508 is a United States federal law.
  • WCAG is a set of globally recognized guidelines.

Since one is a law and the other is guidelines, why is there confusion around them? To understand that, we need to dig a little deeper.

Section 508 Breakdown

Section 508 is a law that requires federal agencies and those receiving federal funds to make sure people with disabilities can access their digital information and communications.

In 1986, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 received a much-needed makeover, and Section 508 became federal law. You see, technology was booming and, with such rapid advances, people with disabilities had difficulty accessing digital information. So, the addition of Section 508 addressed this issue.

Unfortunately, the initial adoption of Section 508 was largely unsuccessful. The legislation lacked real enforcement and clear guidelines. But, in 1998, Congress fixed the issues. They updated the law to hold federal agencies accountable and required electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Then (are you ready for this?), in 2017, the U.S. Access Board — an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities — refreshed Section 508 again! This refresh included several updates that federal agencies, and those receiving federal funding, had to follow. The update went into effect in 2018 and introduced enhanced guidelines encompassing various technologies and how people access digital information. 

That’s how we got to the Section 508 we know today!

WCAG Breakdown

WCAG is a set of guidelines that help people make their websites, apps, and other electronic information accessible to people with varying abilities.

Did you know the internet wasn’t really a thing until the mid-90s? Even then, it was drastically different from the internet we use today. 

Thankfully, when the internet was in its infancy, a group of savvy people realized that this new platform excluded people with disabilities. They didn’t like that. So, they formed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and published the first set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. (I know; too many acronyms!)

Through WCAG, WAI introduced a formal set of globally recognized guidelines. These guidelines are meant to help web developers and, honestly, anyone else create accessible digital information. 

Developing such guidelines is a huge undertaking, especially with how quickly technology advances. Luckily, WAI recognizes this and continually works to improve these guidelines. To date, there’s been three iterations of WCAG: 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1. The release of WCAG 2.2 is expected this year. W3C also published a working draft of 3.0.

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Where’s the confusion?

Now for the big question: Why do people think 508 and WCAG are the same or interchangeable? 

Some confuse 508 and WCAG as interchangeable terms since one requires compliance with the other.

Section 508 incorporated WCAG as the federal standard for website and app accessibility.

You see, the 2018 refresh of Section 508 enhanced the requirements for information and communication technology (ICT). This update adopted WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for website, electronic document, and software accessibility. 

With this addition, federal agencies and organizations receiving federal funding must follow the guidelines because they’re part of the law.

Related: Section 508, ADA, WCAG, 2.0, 2.1, AA, AAA, Compliance… What Does It All Mean?

FYI for Private Companies

Hey, private sector! You’re not off the hook just because you’re not legally required to follow Section 508. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to you. And guess what? Our court system uses WCAG to measure website and app accessibility in digitally-based lawsuits. 

Still not convinced WCAG compliance is vital to your business’s survival? You should check out some recent rulings, including the Winn-Dixie and Domino’s Pizza lawsuits.

Clarification Complete

There you have it! There are clear differences between 508 and WCAG. So, while we understand why there’s confusion, it’s important to understand the differences. Tell your friends!

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This post was written by Jessica Sanders

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