The Difference Between Section 508 vs. ADA Website Compliance

Web Accessibility Knowledgebase

Because they both apply to web accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act are often confused with each other. Click here to learn the difference between these important legislations and how you can comply with them.

accessiBe Team

The information presented within this guide is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

When you comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, you give all website visitors the opportunity to access your website and online documents. 

Because they both apply to web accessibility, the ADA and Section 508 are often confused with each other. 

In this blog, we will cover the differences between them, and we’ll also explain the best ways for your business or federally-funded organization to comply with these laws. 

Comparing the ADA and Section 508

While the ADA and Section 508 exist to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities, they are not the same legislation.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 only applies to government agencies, organizations that receive federal funding, and service providers to federally-funded organizations. Conversely, the ADA applies to private businesses (with the exception of religious organizations and private clubs). 

The ADA and Section 508 also have slightly different standards for web accessibility, which we will cover in more detail later in the blog.

What is the ADA and what is ADA compliance? 

The ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against the disability community, and is a very broad piece of legislation that covers many different topics related to accessibility. 

If you’re a business owner, you should be familiar with ADA Title III

ADA Title III requires businesses classified as “public accommodations” to make reasonable modifications to ensure their facilities and services are accessible to people with disabilities. Public accommodations are businesses that are open to and serve the public, such as restaurants, colleges, hotels, banks, movie theaters, public transportation, and many small businesses

As the internet’s impact on everyday life continues to grow, various courts across the U.S. have ruled that these businesses’ websites are now also included under ADA Title III. These rulings fit a 2018 affirmation issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ), stating that ADA accessibility requirements now extend to online spaces.    

It’s important to note that nearly all places of business provide services and accommodations to the public. Thus, ensuring their websites and web-based applications (such as online documents and emails) are accessible and in compliance with the ADA is relevant to almost all businesses.

What is Section 508 and who does it apply to? 

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that all federal agencies, organizations that receive federal funding, and service providers to federally-funded organizations, must make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. 

Applicable technologies include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Websites
  • Videos and other multimedia
  • Electronic documents (e.g., PDF files)
  • Emails
  • Web and desktop applications 

Organizations that do not receive federal funding or provide services to federally-funded organizations do not need to comply with Section 508. 

How do you become ADA and Section 508-‌compliant? 

Though both pieces of legislation apply to web accessibility, being Section 508-compliant does not automatically mean your website is ADA-compliant (and vice versa). Here’s what you need to know about meeting compliance requirements for both the ADA and Section 508: 

How do you become ADA-compliant? 

ADA Title III does not have a clear set of legal standards by which a website is considered accessible. However, it is generally agreed that to achieve ADA website compliance, websites should adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is an internationally accepted standard for web accessibility, and has been referenced by the DOJ as the standards websites should meet ‌under the ADA

Throughout the years, there have been a number of WCAG versions. WCAG 2.0 is an older version of the guidelines, and WCAG 2.1 is the most current version. WCAG 2.2, was initially released in February of 2020 and was officially published on October 5th, 2023.

There are three levels of conformance to WCAG 2.0 and 2.1:

  • Level A - the minimum level of conformance
  • Level AA - the most commonly-sought after level of WCAG conformance
  • Level AAA - the most difficult level of conformance to achieve

To meet ADA web accessibility requirements, it is recommended to conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA, at minimum. 

While nothing is codified into law, it is worth noting that websites that conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA are unlikely to face legal recourse under the ADA.

WCAG 2.1: a short breakdown

WCAG 2.1 includes a detailed list of recommendations to make your website more accessible to all visitors. To conform with WCAG 2.1, businesses will need to address the following action items:

  • Ensure websites and online documents are compatible with screen reader technology: 
    People with vision impairments rely on screen reader tools to access digital content. For websites to be compatible with such devices, adjustments must be made at the code level
  • Provide alt text for meaningful images:
    Alt text describes an image displayed on a web page. Read aloud by screen readers, alt text helps people with vision impairments ‌understand the content and context of the image. It is important to note that for it to achieve the desired effect, alt text must properly and fully describe the image in question for those relying on screen readers to understand it. Additionally, alt text should only be added to images that, if removed, would result in a website visitor losing out on vital content. These images are called “meaningful images.” Non-meaningful images (i.e., the kind displayed only for decorative purposes) should be hidden from assistive technologies
  • Ensure sufficient color contrast between text and background:
    The color contrast between text and its background should be high enough for people with color blindness or low vision to be able to read the text
  • Support any screen orientation:
    Website visitors who mount their device to a mobility support may prefer one orientation over another. Ensure that website visitors can use your website in both portrait and landscape mode
  • Notify visitors of timeouts:
    If a certain web page expires after a defined period of inactivity, certain website visitors can find this challenging. Therefore, they must be alerted if their web page will expire soon. This notification must include the option to turn off, adjust, or extend the time limit
  • Provide alternative formats for audio and/or video content:
    Videos with audio content should include captions to accommodate people with hearing impairments, as well as audio descriptions for people with vision impairments
  • Ensure content is scalable:
    Text must be able to be resized up to 200% without content becoming scattered or design elements losing their functionality

It is important to note that these are only some of the detailed recommendations outlined within WCAG 2.1. We recommend you check out this comprehensive ADA website compliance checklist to conform to WCAG 2.1 at Level A, AA, or AAA. If you're looking for inspiration when redesigning your website so that it conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA, you can take a look at these examples of stunning ADA-compliant websites

How do you become Section 508-compliant?

Unlike the ADA, Section 508 has a clear standard for compliance. Organizations that must comply with Section 508 need to ensure their websites and other information and communication technology (ICT) conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. 

Click here for a comprehensive Section 508 compliance checklist.

It’s important to note that under Section 508, organizations are required to document their ICT's level of conformance by completing a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT)

To read more about VPATs and how you should approach them, you can read this blog.

How to test a website for ADA and Section 508 compliance

You can test your website for ADA compliance or for Section 508 compliance using automated testing tools, such as accessScan, and by relying on expert service providers, like accessServices

To use accessScan, you will need to submit your website’s URL, after which the tool will run a quick, automated audit of your web page and check whether it conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. After the audit is complete, you will be presented with detailed results that will help you address website elements that are non-accessible (if any exist). 

accessServices can be relied on to manually audit and remediate your website, as well. Individuals and organizations who have complex websites often rely on accessServices to thoroughly inspect them and make the necessary adjustments to guarantee compliance with relevant legislation. 

It’s important to note that both approaches complement each other. Many website owners rely on automated ADA website compliance software tools for an initial accessibility audit of their website, and then turn to expert service providers to help examine and remediate compliance issues.

Testing and remediating online documents for ADA and Section 508 compliance

As mentioned above, the ADA and Section 508 apply to websites, as well as to online documents, like PDFs and Microsoft Office documents. For these assets to be accessible to people with disabilities, screen reader tools will need to be able to access them and read aloud the information they contain. For this to be made possible with PDF files, tags will need to be added so that screen reader tools can identify structural elements, such as headings, paragraphs, sections, and tables. 

Other common online document remediation action items (applicable to both PDFs and other document formats) include, but aren't limited to, adding alt text to meaningful images, ensuring sufficient contrast between text and its background, and ensuring the correct reading order.

If you aren’t sure whether certain online documents are accessible, you can test them for compliance. To test documents like PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel files, you can typically use accessibility checkers that are built in to these tools. If accessibility issues are identified, you will need to address (or remediate) them. You can do this yourself or hire an expert service provider, like accessServices, to remediate your online documents for you. The latter allows you to scale part of the process so you can complete large document remediation projects faster and more thoroughly. 

Click here to learn how accessServices can help you streamline your online document remediation efforts. 

If you're planning on testing and remediating your PDFs yourself, we recommend you check out our guide on creating ADA-compilant PDFs and our list of the best available PDF accessibility testers.

The legal consequences of not complying with the ADA or Section 508

Both the ADA and Section 508 exist to protect the disability community from discrimination. Businesses and organizations that do not comply with these laws (when they apply to them) present people with disabilities with unjust barriers and can face legal recourse for doing so. 

When businesses fail to comply with the ADA, they risk receiving an ADA website compliance demand letter. Individuals or organizations send said letter when they identify compliance gaps within a website, and will include a date by which the issues will need to be resolved. Failure to act upon a demand letter can result in further legal action, such as facing an ADA website compliance lawsuit. It’s important to note that if your website does not comply with the ADA, you can face a lawsuit even without being sent a demand letter first. 

Organizations that need to comply with Section 508 and fail to do so are at risk of facing lawsuits, too.

It’s worth noting that organizations that do not comply with these laws (when they apply to them) risk incurring significant reputational damage, as well. 

Key Takeaways

The ADA and Section 508 exist to ensure that everyone has equal access to information and services on the internet. It is important that businesses and federally-funded organizations (including service providers to federally-funded organizations) make web accessibility a top priority. This will grant equal access to the disability community, and mitigate the risk of facing legal action.