Accessible design is not only a best practice but also a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. Over the years, various laws and regulations have been enacted to ensure that both physical and digital spaces are accessible to all, including individuals with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, is a landmark legislation for physical environments. It mandates that public and commercial spaces be designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities, ensuring equal access and opportunities.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that U.S. federal agencies, bodies that receive federal funding, and service providers to such organizations ensure their information and communication technology (ICT) is accessible to people with disabilities. ICT encompasses a range of technologies used to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information, including computers, software, websites, telecommunication devices, and multimedia resources. In Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) sets forth specific digital accessibility standards for various sectors within Ontario.
It is important to note that many U.S. courts have now interpreted the ADA to apply to online environments, including websites. This shift underscores the growing recognition of websites as essential public accommodations. As a result, businesses and organizations are increasingly required to ensure their online platforms are accessible.
WCAG's role in web accessibility laws
Due to its comprehensive nature and wide acceptance, WCAG has been referenced in various laws and regulations related to digital accessibility across the world. For instance, both Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the AODA in Canada point to WCAG as the standard for compliance. This means that organizations governed by these laws are required to meet a specific WCAG conformance level - WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
Furthermore, in the U.S., the Department of Justice (DOJ) has, in official statements, indicated that websites should conform to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA to be considered accessible under the ADA. This endorsement further solidifies WCAG's position as the go-to standard for web accessibility compliance in legal contexts.