Web Accessibility Compliance

The information presented within this glossary entry 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.

Web accessibility compliance is the act of achieving compliance with specific laws that apply to web accessibility. Prominent laws applying to web accessibility include Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which applies to American federal agencies, federally-funded organizations, and service providers to such bodies, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which applies to most Ontario-registered organizations. 

Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most prominent American law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in public spaces, is currently applied to websites by many U.S. courts. Therefore, businesses that must comply with the ADA need to achieve web accessibility compliance. These include most businesses that sell goods and services to the general public.

Section 508 and the AODA outline specific web accessibility guidelines as the standard for compliance. These are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The Department of Justice (DOJ), in an official letter, has referenced WCAG as the standard that websites should meet under the ADA. 

WCAG’s role in achieving web accessibility compliance

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) play a significant role in achieving compliance with many international web accessibility laws and regulations. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG consists of numerous guidelines (or success criteria) that websites and web-based applications need to meet to be considered accessible under specific laws.

These include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies, such as screen readers
  • Ensuring sufficient color contrast between text and its background
  • Ensuring alternative text is available for meaningful images
  • Ensuring that keyboard-only navigation is possible
  • Ensuring captions appear on videos
  • Ensuring that text can be resized to 200% without loss of content or function

Throughout the years, there have been a number of WCAG iterations:

WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008, while WCAG 2.1, the most up-to-date version of these guidelines, was released in 2018. The first draft of the next version of these guidelines, WCAG 2.2, was initially released in February of 2020, and is scheduled to be officially published in August of 2023.

All three versions of WCAG present three levels websites and web-based applications can conform to:

  1. Level A - the minimum level of conformance
  2. Level AA - the most commonly-sought after level of WCAG conformance by website owners
  3. Level AAA - the most difficult level of conformance to achieve

WCAG as the standard for compliance in web accessibility legislation

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) does not include specific instructions regarding web accessibility compliance. However, many U.S. courts reference WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard websites and web-based applications must conform to in cases relating to web accessibility violations under the ADA. It is worth noting that in 2022, the Department of Justice, one of the primary bodies tasked with enforcing the ADA, referenced WCAG 2.1 at Level AA, as the recommended level of conformance. While this is viewed as an important step toward officially adopting web accessibility standards as part of the ADA, nothing yet has been codified into law.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to federal agencies, federally-funded organizations, and service providers to such organizations. Under Section 508, these organizations must ensure that the information and communication technology (ICT) they procure, develop, maintain, or use is accessible to people with disabilities. ICT includes, but isn’t limited to, websites, online documents, and emails.

The standard for web accessibility compliance under Section 508 is WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA) applies to all organizations in Ontario, regardless of size and sector, including private-sector businesses, non-profit organizations, and government bodies. The AODA exists to mitigate discrimination against people with disabilities, and applies to these organizations’ websites and web applications.

Under the AODA, websites and web-based applications must conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA to achieve web accessibility compliance.

The European Accessibility Act (EAA)

The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is a law that applies to public and governmental groups within the European Union (EU). The EAA references EN 301 549, a policy document produced by a collaboration between the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), as a likely standard for future web accessibility codification. The latest version of EN 301 549 was released in 2021, and is based on WCAG 2.1.

The process of achieving web accessibility compliance

The process of web accessibility compliance involves ensuring that websites and web-based applications conform to the web accessibility standards outlined within specific laws, or to those referenced by relevant judiciaries tasked with enforcing legislation applicable to web accessibility. Most commonly, the standards that will need to be met are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1 at Level AA. The process will typically include the following steps:

1. Auditing a website or web-based application’s accessibility status

Owners of websites or web-based applications will need to perform an audit to examine these assets’ level of conformance to the relevant WCAG standard. The auditing process can be conducted manually, and by leveraging automated auditing tools. The latter run quick automated scans of a given web page and determine how it conforms to WCAG at a desired level. An example of such a tool is accessScan, which can be used for free to examine a website’s conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA. 

Those who choose a manual auditing approach will need to have a strong command of the many sections of WCAG. Many organizations rely on service providers, such as accessServices, to carry these tasks out for them.

It is best practice to incorporate both web accessibility testing approaches.

Automated tools can be used for an initial examination of a website or web-based application. Once accessibility issues are flagged, expert service providers can investigate further and understand their true scope and severity. 

2. Remediating a website or web-based application’s compliance issues

Once a website or web-based application’s accessibility status is determined, website owners will need to remediate existing web accessibility compliance issues (if any exist). Common remediation steps include adding alt text to meaningful images, adjusting color contrast between text and its background, and adding captions to videos. More complex remediation steps include ensuring that more dynamic content, such as drop-down menus and carousels, can be accessed properly by those relying on keyboard navigation and screen readers.

As many of these steps involve making code level changes, website owners often leverage web accessibility compliance tools, such accessWidget, to perform the necessary code adjustments via automation. 

Remediating an online document so that it can be accessed by screen reader technology entails adding proper tags. As this can prove challenging and time-consuming (especially when dealing with ‌long, complex online documents), many choose to rely on expert service providers, such as accessServices, to carry out online document remediation projects.

3. Providing an accessibility statement 

Those who must comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Accessibility for Ontarians Act (AODA) need to add an accessibility statement to their website, as part of their efforts to reach web accessibility compliance. Accessibility statements are usually displayed as links in a website's footer section, appearing alongside other standard information such as a privacy policy and terms of service. Alternatively, accessibility statements can appear inside accessibility widgets, like accessWidget

4. Regularly monitoring websites for conformance with evolving standards and technologies

Web accessibility standards and laws are subject to change as societal awareness toward the needs of the disability community continues to grow. Website owners will need to consistently monitor their websites and web-based applications to ensure they remain accessible and in compliance with the web accessibility laws that apply to them. 

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