What does it mean for your website to be 508 compliant in 2017?

At Two Rivers Marketing, a common challenge our clients face centers around how to stay accessible and relevant to consumers in an ever-increasing digital world. As we recognize the 44th anniversary of the signing of The Rehabilitation Act, we’re reminded of what The Act means, its purpose, and how it closely ties to those serving their brand in a marketing capacity in 2017. These questions can be answered by breaking down three high-level areas of 508 compliance:

  • What is WCAG/ADA/508 compliance?
  • Why does increased website accessibility matter?
  • What are key first-steps for how an organization can transition to becoming compliant?

Where it all began

As a refresher for the non-history buffs, The Rehabilitation Act was signed by President Richard Nixon on September 26, 1973 to provide protection and services for individuals with disabilities. The Act was established in an attempt to break down some of the societal barriers that those living with a disability faced. Each section addresses a different core area, with Section 508 specifically covering issues related to access to communication and computer technology. Amendments to The Act have been established over the last 44 years with the goal to continue to increase accessibility and support across all walks of life.

So why does increased web accessibility matter?

The World Wide Web has become an incredible information hub and resource, helping to pave the way for many new opportunities. Information and resources that were previously unavailable through traditional forms of media have become accessible to more people. For individuals living with a disability, improved web accessibility allows for an optimal online user experience and exposure to digital information that they otherwise would not have.

From an organizational perspective, supporters of accessible digital space technologies believe businesses will maximize the reach of their messages due to the millions of individuals living with a disability. While this is certainly important to note, an additional benefit web accessibility provides for your business is improved visibility to search engines.

One of the many benefits of becoming compliant is an SEO boost. Search engine optimization relies on web crawlers or internet bots to systematically rate a website for the purpose of indexing. In the process of an index, crawlers evaluate elements of a website in an attempt to understand the page content and report this data back to search engine servers. Many of the same elements that go into becoming compliant also help to make it easier for web crawlers to crawl sites because of the nature of the easy-to-understand design, rich media, metadata, and code. In addition to improved indexing results, becoming compliant can also extend to a company’s sales metrics. When web crawlers can index your site and its content more easily, it will rank higher in SERPs for relevant search queries. In 2015, a study by Infront Webworks revealed 91.5% of organic traffic is derived from the first page of search results. By ranking higher, not only will your site be more visible (read: an increase in unique site visitors), but your conversion rates and qualified leads are also likely to increase over time.

WCAG standards vs. 508 compliance vs. ADA compliance

WCAG is a set of standards developed through the W3C Process, which collectively develops web accessibility guidelines, standards, and educational resources to help make the public internet as accessible as possible to individuals living with a disability. As an industry, most web designers and developers involved in the creation of a website are, in some shape or form, held accountable to the requirements of WCAG 2.0.

Section 508 is an amendment which refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It is a federal law requiring that all electronic and information technology developed, maintained or used by federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. Private entities, such as non-federally funded or directly correlated businesses to the Federal Government of the United States, currently are not held legally responsible for adhering to the strict federal guidelines that come with being 508 compliant.

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. According to the ADA National Network, the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. Familiar examples of ADA compliance may include handicap ramp access for an area business, braille signage in a public transportation hub and movie captioning. Over the years the need for increased accessibility and equal opportunity in a digital landscape has surfaced. Due to this shift, The Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed in 2001, adding Section 508 to the original law.

How can my business become 508 compliant?

If you’re planning for a site redesign or audit, your team will want to consider ADA Compliance at every step to ensure alignment across all phases of design and development. Many accessibility audits must be done manually, and depending on the level of compliance needed, human judgement and different evaluation techniques may be required. Here are a few easy methods that will help you transition to becoming compliant and improve the overall accessibility of your site:

  • Web pages are designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color (i.e. is there sufficient contrast between the foreground and background elements?)
  • Equivalent alternatives are provided for multimedia elements of your site (i.e. do your video or other audio files have synchronized captions or scripts?)
  • Alt text is used and displayed correctly to allow for assistive screen readers to read it aloud to blind users and to be SEO-friendly
  • Web content is organized in a way that is considered readable (i.e. does your content require a style sheet?)
  • Text equivalents are provided for non-text elements (i.e. form fields)
  • Row and column headers have been properly identified for data tables

While these few examples skim the surface of how to make your website more accessible to all users online, it’s important to first and foremost determine what level of compliance is needed for your business. To learn more about how to meet WCAG 2.0, you may want to check out the full list of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

What’s next?

We get it, things like 508 compliance and WCAG Standards may seem like foreign territory if you don’t know where to start. Evaluating the performance and accessibility of your website is a key first step in improving the user experience for all your audience groups.