Even if you’re new to the world of accessible technology, you’ve probably heard terms tossed around that relate to accessibility standards and regulations—like “508 compliant” and “WCAG.”

The information below will demystify some of the technical standards that apply to accessibility and explain how they differ from laws and regulations.

Knowing exactly what “accessibility” means in technical terms will:

  • Help employers work with their technology vendors and internal developers, and in some cases clarify legal requirements.
  • Support vendors in their efforts to organize their development activities to meet or exceed legal requirements.
  • Enable employees and job applicants with disabilities to understand how specific technology issues relate to their use of technologies in the workplace.

Standards, Laws, and Regulations

To begin, it’s important to understand the difference between technical standards and laws and regulations. Roughly speaking, accessibility laws establish what is going to be covered (e.g., wireless phones) and who will have the authority to enforce and develop rules implementing the law (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)). Meanwhile, regulations spell out the details of implementation and enforcement.

Sometimes technical standards are included in the regulations; other times external standards, developed by a recognized standards body, are “incorporated by reference” into the regulations. The advantage of this approach is that if experts in the standards body agree that some change is needed, it will not take a long regulatory process to implement that change—when the standard is updated, the regulations may be automatically updated as well.

When people say “Section 508” they may be talking about the law (Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act), or they may be talking about the technical guidelines developed as part of the Section 508 regulations. Entities that are not legally required to comply with Section 508, such as state agencies or universities, may nonetheless use the Section 508 technical standard in their own policies—and many find it beneficial to do so.

Common Accessibility Standards

Here are the most important technical standards to consider:

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is a set of comprehensive and richly detailed guidelines, along with suggestions and other implementation information, for all web content. Although some find it difficult to use in its native form, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides many helpful tools to help you get started. As of 2021, WCAG3 is available as a working draft, and will soon become the standard (replacing WCAG2).
  • Other Web Accessibility Guidelines. Not everything in the web ecosystem is a webpage. WAI has also issued guidelines for user agents (e.g., browsers) and authoring tools, the software used to develop web content. These are the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) and Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), respectively.
  • Non-web ICT. WAI also produced guidance about how to apply WCAG to non-web ICT, called WCAG2ICT. This covers software and non-web content such as documents, and most of the guidelines are analogies or extensions of WCAG guidelines.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which applies to federal employees and contractors. In 2018, Section 508 was updated to provide guidance based on features and functionality, and include accessibility requirements harmonized with international standards such as WCAG.
  • Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The Access Board produced, and the FCC adopted, regulations for Section 255 with built-in performance standards. These same provisions were applied to the technologies covered by CVAA in some cases; there are additional standards and guidelines that cover different equipment and services.
  • The European Standard EN 301 549

Although the world of standards can be very complicated, most accessibility standards or guidelines (terms that are interchangeable) fall into one of two categories: design standards or performance standards. However, some (including Section 508) actually have both. Design standards dictate the features or functions a design should have. They are clear, but they also necessarily limit freedom in design. Performance standards instead designate what a user should be able to achieve. As a result, meeting them requires an understanding of the performance gap a user with a disability is experiencing. But, they also provide more freedom in design options.

Whether you’re an employer, a technology vendor, or an individual user, being versed in technical standards for workplace technologies is an important part of succeeding in accessibility. But you don’t need to be an expert—there are many resources, including PEAT, out there to help you navigate this rapidly changing but exciting world. So check back often!