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An Introduction to Accessibility for Local Government Websites

by Tom Humbarger
Post Date:09/21/2015
Accessibility image for blog post
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) celebrated its 25thAnniversary in July 2015. The ADA Act was an important milestone for improving accessibility for all in workplaces, communities and schools, and for protecting the rights of Americans with disabilities. While the ADA focused mostly on physical access, part of the original act covered access to telecommunications and information technology. With the Internet boom in the mid to late 1990s the ADA Act led to calls for improved access to the web.  

What is Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility is the practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with or access to websites and web content by people with disabilities. The primary disability categories include:

  • Visual – visual impairments including blindness, low vision and poor eyesight, and color blindness
  • Motor and Mobility – difficulty or inability to use the hands due to tremors, muscle slowness, loss of fine motor control
  • Auditory – deafness or hearing impairments
  • Seizures – disabilities caused by visual strobe or flashing effects
  • Cognitive and Intellectual – developmental, learning, and cognitive disabilities

When sites are correctly built and maintained, all of these users can be accommodated without decreasing the usability of the site for non-disabled users. And since making a website accessible has little or no impact on its visual appearance, applying accessibility standards ensures that all users have equal access to information and functionality, and is the right thing to do from a business and service standpoint. However, applying accessibility standards is not always easy and is subject to interpretation. 

Bruce Lawson who co-authored a book titled Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance puts accessibility into context:

“Accessibility is emphatically not about bringing every web page down to the lowest common denominator.  Quite the contrary, it is about preserving branding, beauty, creativity, passion and soul while simultaneously maximizing the number of people invited in to experience them.”

What Standards Cover Web Accessibility?

There are several standards or guidelines that govern website accessibility, and the primary guidelines are referred to as Section 508 and WCAG. The standards that most people are familiar with is known as Section 508 which were adopted as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Another key set of recommendations has been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that addresses a wide range of issues related to the Web.  Since 1999, W3C has published two different Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (also known as WCAG) – WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division began reviewing local and state governments in 1999 to help them begin to come into full compliance with the requirements of Title II of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Title II prohibits discrimination to all services, programs and activities of State and local governments regardless of whether they receive Federal financial assistance. While most of the DoJ reviews focus on modifications to physical facilities, polling places and law enforcement services, websites and web-based services have also come under direct scrutiny. The DoJ settlements state that websites and web services must become compliant with the accessibility standards known as WCAG 2.0, and that they must adopt policies and procedures to maintain accessibility for all current and future content on their websites. 

An interesting comment on accessibility compliance comes from Daniel Ferro who says: 

“You can do two things with accessibility: Comply with the letter of the law, or comply with the spirit of the law. You can have a website fully pass accessibility requirements on paper, yet ironically be inaccessible. Simply being compliant with accessibility standards, sadly, does not automatically mean your website is accessible.”

Section 508

In 1998, U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal Agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to all users, including people with disabilities.  Section 508 was the name of the amendment and these are the standards that most people use when they refer to accessibility concerns with websites. Section 508 can be a little confusing in that it can refer to both “The Law” and “The Standards” which are two different things, and provide different types of information. The Law described the complaint process and authorized theUnited States Access Board to write the accessibility standards which were published in 2000.

The Standards (actually the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards) provide technical requirements for the following product areas:

  • Software applications and operating systems
  • Web-based intranet and internet information and applications
  • Telecommunications products
  • Video and multimedia products
  • Self-contained, closed products (copiers, fax machines, etc.)
  • Desktop and portable computers

Section 508 identifies 16 Technical Standards in paragraph 1184.22 fo or web-based intranet and internet information. 

Note that there is nothing in Section 508 that requires non-Federal websites to comply with the law unless they are doing business with or receiving funds from the Federal government. However, when state and local governments and other businesses want make sure their websites and technology are accessible, they used the Section 508 Standards to define accessibility. In addition, best practices in web design today generally use both Section 508 and WCAG for defining what accessibility means.

WCAG 1.0

W3C formed a group called Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to develop strategies, guidelines and resources to help make the web accessible for persons with disabilities. The group published WCAG 1.0 in 1999 which consisted of 14 guidelines which are general principles for accessible design.  Each guideline covers a basic theme of web accessibility and is associated with one or more checkpoints which describe how to apply the guideline to make web content both “understandable and navigable”. 

There are three levels of compliance with WCAG 1.0 – A, AA and AAA:

  • A level compliance – all Priority 1 checkpoints are satisfied
  • AA level compliance – all Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints are satisfied
  • AAA compliance – all Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints are satisfied

W3C recommends that accessibility is validated with automatic tools and human review. While automated methods are generally rapid and convenient, they cannot identify all accessibility issues. Also, using validation methods at the earliest stages of development help surface issues when they are easier to correct and avoid.  WCAG 1.0 has been superceded by WCAG 2.0.

WCAG 2.0

WCAG 2.0 was developed to be functionally-based instead of the product-based approach of WCAG 1.0 and Section 508.  This means that WCAG 2.0 will apply more broadly to different types of current Web technologies as well as advanced technologies that may be developed in the future. WCAG 2.0 compliance requirements were also created to be more precisely testable with automated testing and human evaluation. Finally, WCAG 2.0 was developed in coordination with international efforts to settle on a single Web accessibility standard.

WCAG 2.0 was first published in 2008 and became an ISO standard in 2012. WCAG is driven by four principles to ensure that website content and website functionality is accessible.

Under these four principles are 12 guidelines which provide the basic goals that should be used to make content more accessible.   Here is WCAG 2.0 at a glance:

  • Perceivable
    • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
    • 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
    • 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
    • Make text readable and understandable.
    • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
    • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
  • Robust
    • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

For each of the 12 guidelines, there are testable success criteria used to measure compliance at 3 levels:

  • A (lowest)
  • AA
  • AAA (highest)

Each successive level of compliance requires a stricter set of conformance guidelines.  For each of the guidelines and criteria, a wide variety of execution techniques have been documented.  The techniques fall into two categories: those that are sufficient for meeting the success criteria and those that are advisory.  

Proposed New 508 Standards – Section 508 Refresh

In February 2015, the United States Access Board issued their proposal to update the existing Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, combining Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 (Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines) and Section 508 guidelines.  Most people in the industry are referring to this proposal as the “Section 508 Refresh”. Since the current Section 508 guidelines were issued in 2000, there has been a technology revolution that has transformed how people access technology.  Due to the convergence of technology, the new rules will replace the current product-based approach with requirements based on functionality to ensure that accessibility for all keeps pace with future technological advances. 

The four major changes in the proposed 508 Standards are:

  • Broad application of WCAG 2.0 –incorporates the WCAG 2.0 standard and makes success criteria applicable to web content, non-web electronic documents, and software
  • Delineation of covered electronic “content” – the proposed rule specifies that all types of public facing content encompasses all forms of electronic information and data which brings clarity to the scope of covered electronic content
  • Expanded interoperability requirements –brings more specificity about how operating systems, software development toolkits, and software applications should interact with assistive technology
  • Requirement for real-time text (RTT) functionality –requires RTT functionality wherever an information and communication technology (ICT) product provides real-time, two-way voice communication

The Board has held several public hearings and will publish their final ruling in the Federal Register after all comments have been received and reviewed.  As of September 2015, the final rules have not been published.

Update as of April 2016On April 29, 2016, the Department of Justice posted a Statement Regarding Rulemaking on Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities. You should review this notice to get the latest information on the proposed accessibility laws.

Next Steps

Anyone who is involved with developing websites or creating web content should spend some time getting familiar with the latest accessibility requirements. In some areas, such as Ontario, Canada, legislation has already been passed to require compliance (for companies with more than 50 employees) with WCAG 2.0 for new public websites and web content created after January 2012. As more people focus on making websites and content accessible, rather than on the compliance side of accessibility, the world becomes better for all of us.

Additional Web Accessibility Resources

Web accessibility is a complicated subject and this post is intended to provide an introductory overview of the topic.

If you want to learn more about web accessibility, here are a few additional resources:

At Vision, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular needs. Request a free consultation now.


While we are summarizing the accessibility information from various sources in this post for the purpose of educating our customers, we encourage you to conduct your own legal research on website accessibility and discuss any issues with your in-house counsel or agency attorney, as appropriate.

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