Choosing a Technical Web Accessibility Standard

In the path toward improved web accessibility, one of the most important steps is the creation of an accessibility policy, and at the heart of an accessibility policy is a technical accessibility standard. This technical standard outlines the minimal level of accessibility for the web content that your group will create and purchase.

Choosing a standard seems simple, but reaching a consensus on a standard can be difficult. Aim too high and there can be resistance and non-conformance. Aim too low and accessibility will be insufficient and discrimination might still be an issue. When choosing a standard, there are really only two places to look—Section 508 and WCAG 2.0. There are pros and cons to each. The following blog post addresses some of these pros and cons, and provides our recommendations for an accessibility standard.

Section 508

As law, Section 508 applies to branches of the US federal government, but other groups commonly use its technical standard as well, including state governments and businesses.

Section 508 Pros:

  • It is used by many organizations, so it is easy to find and purchase resources that claim compliance with 508.
  • There are currently only 16 checkpoints for web content, making conformance easier than other standards.
  • 508 applies to “Electronic and Information Technology” (e.g., software, computers, etc.), not just web content.
  • It is more concrete and prescriptive in its language.

Section 508 Cons:

  • It is very dated. The standards are over a decade old and they are based on WCAG 1.0, which is even older.
  •  It is insufficient. Many of the checkpoints are dated or redundant, leaving you with a very small list of relevant recommendations.
  • It is being updated, making it a bit of a moving target.

Section 508 Refresh

Section 508 has been undergoing a “refresh” for years now. Although the date that 508 will be updated is uncertain, two separate drafts have been presented for public comment, most recently in December 2011. While the draft could change further still, one thing is clear—the refresh version of 508 will be more inclusive and complicated. If you choose Section 508 as a technical standard, be ready for it to change dramatically and anticipate this change in your accessibility policy.

WCAG 2.0

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is a set of international guidelines for web accessibility developed by the W3C. They were finalized in December 2008. The guidelines are organized by levels (A, AA, AAA).

WCAG pros:

  • It is the most complete and up-to-date set of accessibility guidelines.
  • It is the basis of a most international accessibility law.
  • An increasing number of vendors provide information about WCAG 2.0 conformance.
  • It aligns very closely with the proposed 508 refresh. In fact, meeting WCAG A and AA will probably satisfy Section 508 requirements for web content.

WCAG cons:

  • It is limited to web content.
  • There can be a gap between Level A (which may be insufficient) and AA (which can be difficult to implement). However, even Level A is more relevant than current Section 508.
  • It can be a bit difficult to interpret.

What about a WCAG A/AA hybrid?

If Section 508 is dated and WCAG AA can be difficult, then wouldn’t a hybrid standard be the ideal solution? While this may seem like an ideal compromise, hybrid solutions have one significant drawback—vendors typically do not make products for locally derived hybrids so you may find it very difficult to find resources and purchase products to meet your standard. Part of the intent of a widely used standard is to help harmonize the field, and provide interoperability.

While we do not typically recommend a hybrid standard, there is at least one instance where it may be warranted. If your institution is determined to choose a less-inclusive standard such as WCAG 2.0 Level A, you could at least enhance it with additional standards (e.g., Level AA criteria for visible keyboard focus and color contrast).

Our recommendation

While a technical standard should reflect your institution’s specific needs, some standards are better than others. We typically recommend a standard in the following order:

  • WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
  • Section 508, with the proviso that the standard will be updated when Section 508 is updated. If this is your institution’s approach, refer to WCAG as an intermediate solution. This will prepare your institution for the transition to the refreshed 508.
  • If your institution determines that WCAG AA is too burdensome and 508 too uncertain, a minimal recommendation would be WCAG Level A, or possibly a hybrid standard as outlined above.
  • Choosing Section 508 without addressing the update is not a sufficient standard for any organization.

No matter what you choose, you will want to be explicit as to your technical standard.  It should appear in your policy statements and be referenced in procurement contracts and training plans. Hopefully this review provides your institution with some guidance for this important step. If you have additional thoughts or recommendations, or if you disagree with our recommendations, please comment below.

2 thoughts on “Choosing a Technical Web Accessibility Standard

  1. Pingback: A Brief Overview of Web Accessibility Law in Higher Education |

  2. Pingback: Looking to the Work of Others as You Create Your Institution’s Web Accessibility Policy |

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