What Webmasters Should Know About the U.S. Rehabilitation Act

September 15, 2021

Digital accessibility is essential for expanding your audience and providing equitable service — and, in the United States, it’s also a matter of federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) carries its brick-and-mortar protections online, with a 2010 revision that requires businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments to “communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities.” That certainly includes digital communications like websites.   

But the ADA isn’t the only federal law that may apply to your digital communications outlets. As you start researching digital accessibility in the U.S., you’ll also encounter the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, particularly two sections that cover communications accessibility directly: Sections 508 and 504. 

Here’s a quick introduction to Section 508 and Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act for webmasters, along with resources for testing and achieving compliance. 

Section 508: Digital Accessibility for Federal Agencies

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act lists accessibility standards for information and communications technology (ICT), including digital resources like websites. Crucially, this section only applies to federal agencies and their contractors. According to Section 508, all ICT used by employees of federal agencies — and the public they serve — must be accessible to people with disabilities. If your company has contracts with federal agencies, the standards of Section 508 are likely to apply to your websites and mobile apps.  

To achieve compliance, look to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), an international set of standards compiled by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Following a series of revisions to reflect evolving digital technologies, Section 508 refers to WCAG as a measure of compliance. More specifically, the law states that “electronic content shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0.” 

In 2018, however, W3C published an updated version of WCAG: WCAG 2.1, and a working draft of WCAG 2.2 was published earlier this year. The good news is that content that complies with newer versions of WCAG also conforms to WCAG 2.0. In other words, if your site meets the Success Criteria as set forth in the latest edition of WCAG, it should still comply with the law as written.   

For help complying with the Rehabilitation Act, then, start with a professional WCAG accessibility audit from the Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BOIA). This testing includes both automated and manual components. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) calls this hybrid testing method “the best solution to handle a large volume of electronic content.” By following WCAG guidelines closely, webmasters can improve accessibility and comply with this section of the Rehabilitation Act.  

However, Section 508 is just one of the dense patchwork of laws at the federal, state, and local levels that require digital communications to be accessible. The bottom line is that most websites have a legal and ethical responsibility to avoid discrimination against people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act expands this requirement beyond federal agencies and their contractors. 

Section 504: Accessibility Requirements for Organizations with Federal Funding   

According to the GSA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act “prohibits discrimination based on disability by federal agencies and recipients of federal assistance” (our emphasis). In other words, you don’t have to be a federal contractor to be bound by the Rehabilitation Act’s accessibility requirements. If federal funds contribute to your organization, this law requires your websites and other digital communications to comply with its accessibility standards. 

This section is particularly relevant for educators; in higher education, federal funding overtook state spending in 2015, largely through an expansion of the Pell Grant program. But the requirements apply equally to recipients of federal funds in any industry. Section 504 explicitly names corporations, partnerships, and private organizations alongside educational agencies and local governments as subjects of its requirements — provided they receive federal funding.  

Whether Section 508, Section 504, the ADA, or any other accessibility law applies to your website, the key is to design for accessibility from the start. The best tool for this task remains WCAG. Contact us to discuss WCAG compliance, or get started today with a free WCAG 2.1 AA compliance scan from BOIA.     

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