Meeting Web Accessibility Guidelines

July 17, 2016| by Dan Moriarty

All websites should have a goal of meeting accessibility standards, and for many federally-funded organizations, it is already a requirement. But what is the standard to measure against?

Section 508

Section 508 is an accessibility standard you hear about frequently. But what does it mean and where did it come from?

Section 508 began in 1986 as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As a law, it requires Federal agencies to provide information technology to the public that is accessible by persons with disabilities. In 1998, it was modified to define more specifically what was being measured. The list now included “Web-based intranet and internet information and applications” (aka websites).

What are the requirements?

A short summary of requirements include:

  • ALT Text: A text equivalent for every non-text element–also known as “make sure you use ALT tags on all your images”
  • Captions: include text captions to accompany your videos and audio clips
  • Color: don’t rely on color alone to convey information, and make sure you offer appropriate color contrast
  • Forms: use descriptive labels on all form elements for full accessibilty on webforms
  • Frames: label your frames with a <title> element that describes its purpose
  • Image maps: provide text links to accompany any image-map
  • Motion: don’t have blinking elements (or more specifically, ‘No element on the page flashes at a rate of 2 to 55 cycles per second’)
  • Readable: your webpage should be legible and well-structured even with CSS style sheets turned off
  • Plug-ins: for any applet, plug-in or other application required to view data (including PDFs!) you must provide a link to download the plug-in
  • Scripts: make sure any scripts you use are available to those using assistive technology to browse the page
  • Skip Nav: provide a link to skip repetitive navigation elements on every page
  • Tables: use properly structured table headers on your tabular data, such as the <th> table header element, or <scope> when your table headers span more than one column
  • Text-only: provide an up-to-date ‘text-only’ version of a webpage when it is not possible to make your webpage accessible
  • Timed responses: if the user is asked to make a timed-response, they must have the means to request additional time

This is just a paraphrased version. A version of requirements can be found on the WebAIM site or at

Who has to comply?

Surprisingly, the requirements of Section 508 do not extend to recipients of Federal funds or private businesses, except State governments. This does not take into account the American Disabilities Act, however, and how that is being applied to the Web. Expect changes coming soon.



Section 508 wasn’t designed for the modern web, and lacked the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was formed to determine guidelines for accessible technology. Their first guidelines, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), became a W3C Recommendation in 1999.

New requirements and new goals

While WCAG shares some common traits with Section 508, some additional requirements of WCAG 1.0 included:

  • Audio: requires audio of captioned text for videos (so blind users may hear)
  • Clear language: “use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content.”
  • Language: use the lang element to identify the language used (e.g. lang=english)
  • Scripting: your pages have to be accessible even with any scripting turned off (e.g. JavaScript)

WCAG 2.0 - the new accessibility standard

The goal of WCAG was to create a new set of accessibility standards that could better adapt to changing technologies. When WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008, it continued that pursuit while at the same time simplifying the overall principles. The idea was to move away from technique-specific requirements, which are always changing, and instead pursue accessibility from an easier-to-understand series of 4 principles. These 4 principles are knows as POUR:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

These principles are discussed in depth in Constructing a POUR Website. Some of the questions asked in this approach include:

  • Can your site content be perceived in multiple ways, either through the browser or assistive technologies (e.g. screen reader)?
  • Is your site operable to those who don’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse?
  • Is your content easily understood?
  • Is your code robust enough to be used by a variety of web browsers and setups for a variety of different users?

The proposed new standard for Section 508 is expected to require conformance to WCAG 2.0, Level AA


Who Needs To Follow These Guidelines?

All organizations, Federal and State agencies, and educational institutions should use WCAG 2.0 guidelines for accessibility. The Department of Justice is also looking to these guidelines as it determines the required level of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Lawsuits are starting to make their way across the country, and smart organizations should make time to ensure their sites are accessible.

An easy-to-read summary of WCAG standards can be found on the WebAIM website.

Budget for Accessibility

When beginning a new project, or planning the yearly budget for maintaining your website(s), start budgeting a line-item for accessibility. It's not something that has been typically accounted for in the past, but will require additional hours out of your team or your contractors. It shouldn't take too much time if your site is built well, and you'll feel great knowing it is the right thing to do.

Contact Electric Citizen if you'd like to schedule time for an accessibility review.

photo of Dan Moriarty wearing a dark blue dress shirt

About the Author:

Dan has been serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as a UX designer, developer and online strategist since 2000. More about Dan »