The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are often referred to as the gold standard in accessibility and they are widely respected as providing the best path to accessibility compliance — but does the law actually require WCAG compliance?
For federal agencies and their contractors, yes, they are required to conform with WCAG 2.0. For private businesses, the answer is more complicated: they're not required by law to comply with any specific standard like WCAG, but their websites do have to be accessible.
Section 508 and WCAG compliance
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was added in 1998 to require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities, including both employees and members of the public. In 2017, Section 508 was revised with the requirement that by January, 2018, all federal agencies and contractors must, among other revisions, comply with WCAG 2.0 A/AA.
So in the context of federal government agencies, the answer is simple: WCAG is formalized under law as the accessibility standard.
Private businesses and WCAG compliance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most-cited law in regards to web accessibility compliance. This is because the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, and websites are increasingly interpreted in legal cases as places of public accommodation. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has reaffirmed that the ADA does apply to websites as well.
So if it's known that websites are places of public accommodation and therefore need to be accessible to people with disabilities, why is there confusion around whether websites have to comply with WCAG?
In short, and as confirmed by the DOJ, the ADA applies to websites and requires that they be accessible. Mostly because of the ADA's origins back in 1990, the law doesn't specify information about websites or a set of technical standards like WCAG. This is largely where the confusion lies, but here's how to interpret it:
- The absence of a technical standard in the ADA itself does not mean websites don't have to be accessible. They do have to be accessible, but they aren't necessarily in violation of the ADA by not following a specific standard like WCAG. This was one of the points the DOJ made clear in its October 2018 letter on the issue and a sentiment that was validated in January 2019 updates in the Domino's accessibility case.
- WCAG 2.0 and its successor, WCAG 2.1, are consistently identified and upheld as providing an acceptable level of accessibility, cited by plaintiffs and in rulings. This means that while the ADA doesn't yet specify WCAG as a formal standard under the law, the courts are upholding that compliance with WCAG provides reasonable accessibility. To learn more about the acceptable and use of WCAG, read History of WCAG and How Widely Used is WCAG?
- Facing mounting pressure to act and formalize web accessibility standards under the law, including in a recent letter from Senators seeking answers, the DOJ will eventually put the confusion to rest and state with clarity exactly how website accessibility should be measured and tested. It is with overwhelming likelihood that when that happens, they will point to WCAG as the requirement.
In the current climate, websites have to be accessible and it's well-accepted that compliance with WCAG is the best way to achieve that goal. That's why our recommendation is that all businesses that have a publicly-available website test and fix their sites according to WCAG 2.1 specifications.
Questions about your website's compliance?
If you need to know how these laws might apply to your website or you have any questions about how to make your website accessible, please contact us. Or, you can always get started with a free and confidential website accessibility scan.
We look forward to helping you achieve, maintain, and prove digital compliance.