Does Section 504 Require Digital Accessibility?

September 14, 2022

Within the digital accessibility space, two U.S. laws receive most of the attention: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. However, another federal non-discrimination law can have important implications for some institutions.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was the first U.S. federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability status. It applies to federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding, and requires those organizations to provide people with an “equal opportunity to participate in their programs and benefit from their services.” 

Under Section 504, many organizations may have an obligation to provide accessible web content, along with reasonable accommodations including auxiliary aids. This is especially important for educational institutions that receive federal funding.

Below, we’ll discuss the distinction between Section 504, Section 508, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and provide an overview of how these laws work together to improve digital accessibility.

How does Section 504 relate to other federal disability non-discrimination laws?

On its surface, Section 504 is similar to Section 508. However, Section 508 is specific to federal agencies and includes more specific technical requirements for electronic communications. 

Here’s a closer look at the major differences between these two sections of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA: 

  • Section 508 requires federal agencies to offer “comparable access to, and use of, electronic information technology.”
  • Section 504 requires organizations that receive federal funding to provide individuals with disabilities with equal opportunities to participate and programs and benefit from services. 
  • Title II of the ADA effectively extends the requirements of Section 504 to all activities of state and local governments, regardless of whether those agencies receive federal funding.
  • Title III of the ADA prohibits businesses, non-profits, and most other organizations from discriminating in “places of public accommodation,” which includes websites and mobile content according to the Department of Justice.

Providing an accessible website that meets Section 508 standards is one way to improve compliance with Section 504 and Title II of the ADA, but it’s not always enough. Educational institutions may need to provide auxiliary aids (such as braille documents, captioned videos, and assistive technology for accessing web content) under certain circumstances.

The bottom line: Section 504 was the United States' first disability civil rights law, but it was greatly restricted in scope. The ADA extended Section 504, while Section 508 added standards for electronic communications. 

All three laws provide important protections for the rights of individuals with disabilities — but Section 504 compliance is most applicable to educational institutions, hospitals, and other organizations that receive federal funding.

Related: Do State and Local Government Websites Have to Be Accessible?

Does Section 504 apply to private schools?

No, Section 504 doesn’t apply to private institutions. However, private schools must also accommodate students with disabilities under Title III of the ADA. 

Ultimately, every organization that serves the public has both a legal and an ethical responsibility to accommodate people with disabilities. While private postsecondary schools have no obligation to follow Sections 504 or 508, they should still strive to meet the requirements of those laws to ensure ADA compliance — and that means providing accessible digital content.

Related: Why Colleges and Universities Face More Web Accessibility Lawsuits

What Is Required for Section 504 and 508 Compliance? 

The Revised Section 508 Standards incorporate the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility. Government agencies must maintain Level AA conformance with WCAG version 2.0. Read more about WCAG levels of conformance.

For 508 compliance, agencies must regularly test their digital content against WCAG success criteria, which are written as pass-or-fail statements. WCAG includes dozens of criteria to address the needs, preferences, and expectations of people with a wide range of abilities. 

To comply with Section 508 — and by extension, Title II of the ADA — organizations must: 

  • Provide captions and transcripts for videos, podcasts, and other media, which can make multimedia more accessible for people with hearing disabilities.
  • Ensure that mobile apps, web forms, educational platforms, and other resources are accessible with a keyboard alone (no mouse).
  • Write text alternatives for images and other non-text content, which enables users to change the presentation of that content as needed.
  • Use appropriate color contrast on all digital content, which can make text more readable for some people with vision disabilities.
  • Use proper semantic HTML, which enables users to access content with a wide range of user agents (including assistive technologies). 

Compliance with Section 504 may require additional considerations. For example, schools may need to provide students with access to screen readers (software that converts text to audio or braille), touchscreen devices, and other auxiliary aids.

This is not a comprehensive list of compliance requirements. To a strategy for accessibility compliance, you’ll need to consider how your organization offers digital content. 

A great first step: Test your website against WCAG Level AA success criteria using our free automated analysis, then visit our Compliance Roadmap to learn more about WCAG and the best practices of inclusive design.

An accessibility partner can help you create a plan for long-term compliance. For more guidance, send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.

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