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Making Sense of Web Accessibility Lingos

Woman looking at laptop
Woman looking at laptop

In this article, we will be decoding some of the languages we often hear that are tossed around the web accessibility community.

For starters:

If you’re a newbie who’s learning about accessibility, you will probably be overwhelmed by all the acronyms and phrases that are related to accessibility regulations, organizations, documents and the like.

And most likely, you’ll encounter these references again and again and for a beginner, you might have hard time keeping them straight.

So we’re hoping that this article will help you understand and distinguish these references better and generally make the web accessibility landscape a bit clearer.

ADA

First, we will start with the ADA or the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is a 1990 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Its purpose is very similar to the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, which made discrimination based on characteristics illegal.

Now, it is important to note:

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not specifically address web accessibility at all.

The ADA, like we said, was passed in 1990. These were the early days of the internet and the Act was not written with online spaces in mind, especially as we know and use and rely on them today.

With that said, the ADA does impose accessibility requirements on public accommodations. This means that any business that is open to the public or provides a service to the public.

For example:

Restaurants, barber shops, banks, movie theaters, etc. Any businesses like these must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Champions for web accessibility argue that any digital embodiment of these public accommodations, for example, their websites or mobile apps should also be accessible under the ADA.

Many business owners, however, are pushing back saying that the ADA does not apply to their online presence.

You may have heard of the Domino’s case from late 2019. The lawsuit against the pizza chain got a lot of attention because it was one of the first cases to question how the ADA applies to online shopping and ordering.

We will only cover it briefly but in short, a man sued Domino’s because their online ordering service was not accessible to his screen reader, which is an assistive technology that people with blindness and visual impairments rely on to use the internet.

Domino’s appealed the lawsuit and asserted that the ADA does not apply to their website or mobile app. The appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately denied to hear the case.

That meant that the ruling from a lower court stood and this lower court asserted that Domino’s could, in fact, be sued under the ADA because their website and mobile app are not accessible.

This Domino’s case has yet to be resolved, but the rulings from these early appeals indicate that online versions of public accommodations must abide by ADA requirements.

This paves the way for similar lawsuits and will hopefully lead to more rulings in favor of web accessibility.

Section 508

Now let’s move on to what people commonly refer to as “Section 508” or “508” compliance. “508” refers to a specific section in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which, at the time of enactment, was an upgrade to existing accessibility law regarding US Federal agencies.

Section 508 states that any electronic and information technology (we’re talking websites, mobile apps, software products), any type of this technology that is developed, maintained, procured, or used by the Federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.

Section 508 has been through a few changes over the years, but in 1990 Section 508, as we know it today, was passed.

At that time, a government organization called the Access Board was enlisted to develop compliance standards for this newly enacted Section 508.

The Access Board first published these standards in 2000 and has continued to update and more closely align them with international web accessibility standards.

We’ll just note here that there is nothing in Section 508 that requires private websites to comply unless they are receiving federal funds or under contract with a federal agency.

With that said, the reason Section 508 is so important in the United States is because it’s the only piece of legislation that grounds web accessibility standards in the law.

W3C

Now let’s move on and talk about W3C. W3C stands for the World Wide Web Consortium, which is the main international standards organization for the web.

It was founded in 1994 and the W3C is comprised of approximately 450 organizations and a full-time staff. This organization does a lot amazing work, including developing and updating standards.

They also do a lot of education and advocacy work, and they even develop some of their own software products.

One of the W3C’s programs is actually the next acronym that we will be discussing.

WAI

WAI or more often you will hear it pronounced “way” stands for Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI was launched in 1997 and is comprised of several working groups and interest groups that develop guidelines, technical reports, and educational materials that relate to all of the many components of web accessibility.

One of the documents they produce is our next and final acronym: WCAG or “wuh-cag”.

WCAG

You will actually probably hear it said a few different ways. We say “wuh-cag”. People say different things, but WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

These guidelines are developed by the W3C and WAI actually plays an important role in this process, among other individuals and organizations around the world.

So what is WCAG?

To put it simply, it is a very technical list that details how to make web content like a website or mobile app, accessible. It is mostly intended for accessibility professionals, software developers and designers.

So that wraps up today’s article. We really hope that this helped clarify some common web accessibility language and lingo you may have heard.

You can find a bunch helpful information and resources about web accessibility on this website if you are interested in learning more about anything we talked about in this article.

About the author

David Cote

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