Simplifying Section 508 requirements for higher education institutions

Students walk outdoors past the beautiful landscaped lawns of a college campus.


Higher education institutions need to address website and web content compliance with federal and state accessibility regulations. There are a slew of laws that define the access to resources for people with disabilities. Higher education institutions must interpret and apply the guidelines to chart their accessibility journey and provide an accessible learning experience to students with disabilities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 26% of Americans are living with a disability, from a visual or physical impairment to cognitive problems. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, millions of people with varying degrees of disabilities have experienced increased independence and greater access to goods and services.

However, it is clear that progress still needs to be made in a number of areas, including education and digital accessibility. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated 1 in 5 undergraduate students, and more than 1 in 10 post baccalaureate students, had a disability.

When institutions think about an accessible college experience, it is likely to think of ramps, elevators, or accessible bathrooms. But they must also consider their website and any digital materials that may be disseminated to students, faculty and staff.

Understanding Accessibility Laws

Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1986, the National Council on Disability drafted the first version of what would become the Americans with Disabilities Act. The main goal of the ADA is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

Title I applies to employers, including schools, and protects people with disabilities from discrimination, on the basis of their disability, during initial application, interviews, hiring, promotions, training and other aspects of employment. Very few employers, such as Indian tribes and some private membership clubs, are granted exceptions.

Title II applies to all public entities at the state and local level, which includes public colleges and universities. Under Title II, no person with a disability can be discriminated against or prevented from participating in any services, programs or activities of a public entity.

Similarly, Title III ensures equal use and enjoyment of “the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” Within this subsection, private schools are included among the specified “private entities” that are considered to be public accommodations.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Web accessibility guidelines were first released in 1995, with many variants and additions following over the next few years. In 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the internet, published 14 guidelines covering 14 basic themes of web accessibility, collectively known as WCAG 1.0.

This became the standard for incorporating accessibility into a website — for all users, not just those with disabilities — until December 2008 when WCAG 2.0 was published. WCAG 2.0 includes 12 guidelines under four principles (perceivable, operable, understandable and robust).

The International Organization for Standardization approved WCAG 2.0 as an ISO International Standard in October 2012. After continued improvements, the W3C officially recommended WCAG 2.1 in June 2018 “with the goal to improve accessibility guidance for three major groups: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities on mobile devices.”

WCAG 2.1 is proof of the ever-evolving world of accessibility and shows that anyone involved in accessibility should never be complacent. Not only are expectations always adapting to the growing needs of people, both with disabilities and without, but the standards themselves change as well.

Section 504

Section 504 was signed into law in 1977 and is widely considered to be the first statute to declare civil rights for individuals with disabilities. It states specifically that:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”

Section 508

Section 508 covers access to federal programs and services in regards to electronic and information technology. This law requires that alternative, accessible information technology – meaning, a system that can be operated in a variety of ways and does not rely on a single sense or ability of the user – be provided to disabled employees and members of the public. Similarly, it ensures accessibility to web content.

Section 508 states that, “When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology, individuals with disabilities to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access of [those] who are not individuals with disabilities.”

The technical standards go on to include accessible alternatives to:

  • Software Applications and Operating Systems
  • Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications
  • Telecommunications Products
  • Videos or Multimedia Products
  • Self-contained, Closed Products
  • Desktop and Portable Computers

Keep in mind that the law does make exceptions for programs where the implementation of the above standards would cause undue hardship. However, even still, such agencies and departments are still required to supply the information conveyed in the above standards to individuals with disabilities through some alternative means. For instance, if a training video does not have closed captions, and the agency can prove that the cost of captioning would cause undue hardship, the agency would still be required to convey the information in the training video to deaf or hard of hearing employees, perhaps through transcription or with a sign language interpreter.

Section 508 specifies eleven requirements for providing access to disabled students in higher education

1. Built-in accommodations: All educational resources must be designed to provide “built-in” accommodation where possible (i.e. closed captioning, descriptive narration) and/or interface design/content layout that is accessible to “industry standard” assistive computer technology in common use by persons with disabilities.

2. Formats: Information should be provided in the alternative format preferred by the student (i.e. sign language interpreter, closed captioning, descriptive narration, Braille, audio tape, large print, electronic text).

3. Assistants: Assigning assistants (i.e. sign language interpreters, readers) to work with an individual student to provide access to distance education resources should only be considered as a last resort.

4. All Media: Access includes the audio, video and text components of courses or communication delivered via satellite, Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS), cable, compressed video, Local Area Network/Wide Area Network (LAN/WAN networks), Internet, telephone or any other form of electronic transmission.

5. Updating Existing Materials: The curriculum for a course and its associated materials and resources will be reviewed and revised as necessary when the course undergoes curriculum review pursuant to Title 5, 55002 and 55378, every six years as part of the accreditation process.

6. Student Experience: The level of communication and course taking experience must be the same for students with or without disabilities.

7. Purchases: Any educational resources or materials purchased or leased from a third-party provider or created or substantially modified “in-house” must be accessible to students with disabilities.

8. Undue Burden Due to Cost: The argument that such accommodations cannot be made due to an undue cost burden will not generally be accepted if consideration of the issue of accessibility at the time of initial selection could have significantly reduced such costs.

9. No Excuses: In all cases, even where the college can demonstrate that a requested accommodation would involve a fundamental alteration in the nature of the instructional activity or would impose an undue financial and administrative burden, it must nevertheless provide an alternative accommodation that is equally effective for the student if such an accommodation is available.

10. Everyone Shares Responsibility for Accessibility: All college administrators, faculty and staff who use this instructional mode share this obligation.

11. Anytime, anywhere-without assistance: “Learning anytime, anywhere” is a basic principle of distance education. Therefore, all distance education resources must be designed to afford students with disabilities maximum opportunity to access distance education resources “anytime, anywhere” without the need for outside assistance.

How is Section 508 related to WCAG 2.0?

The World Wide Web Consortium’s collection of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is quickly becoming the international standard for web accessibility. While WCAG is the most comprehensive accessibility guide, it has no legal backing in the United States.

Section 508 includes a set of standard technical specifications for web accessibility. While Section 508 has been heavily influenced by WCAG standards, it only adopted a portion of the guidelines. WCAG is far more detailed and comprehensive. Also, WCAG specifies levels of compliance and testable provisions, whereas Section 508 only assigns a simple “pass” or “fail” for criteria.

Resilient rules for accessibility

The United States Access Board seeks to make the guidelines more resilient by heavily referencing the internationally-recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements. Relying on this already-existing set of standards provides several benefits, including ease of compliance (due to a single set of rules) for both institutions and vendors, and harmony with accessibility guidelines of other countries.

What’s affected in higher education?

The most recent rules apply to information and communications technology (ICT), which include lecture videos, websites, learning management systems (LMS), social media, digital documents, and more. Although WCAG 2.0 was originally developed for website content, the new Section 508 rules largely apply to documents (non-website) as well.

Overall, there are some considerations for legacy content, however, such content must already meet the baseline tech accessibility rules from 1998, or have another reason for an exception.

Reacting to the Section 508 Refresh

In a few months, the revised Section 508 standards become enforceable law. As stated, this should not be considered a threat or burden but rather an opportunity for institutions to check their present level of commitment and adherence to accessibility. In order to prepare for the update in standards, a number of proactive steps can easily be taken such as:

  • Contract a third-party expert partner to review institutional accessibility policies and practices and craft a long-term plan to ensure compliance.
  • Review all public-facing websites and electronic documents to ensure compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards.
  • Develop and publish a policy to state the level of commitment and adherence to Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
  • Create an accessibility training plan for all individuals responsible for creating and publishing electronic content.
  • Ensure all ICT contracts, ROIs, and purchases include provisions for accessibility.
  • Inform students of their rights related to accessibility, as well as where to address concerns internally. Then support the students with timely resolutions.

Section 508 Web Accessibility Audit Criteria for higher education institutions

If you are wondering whether or not your institution satisfies Section 508’s web accessibility requirements, consider performing an audit so that you can better scale your accessibility initiatives. All sites should meet the following criteria, at a minimum, to satisfy Section 508:

1. Text equivalent shall be provided for every non-text element.

2. Equivalent alternatives shall be provided for any multimedia presentation, synched with the presentation.

3. Information conveyed with color must also be made available without color.

4. Documents shall be readable without an associated style sheet.

5. Text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.

6. Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps, except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.

7. Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.

8. Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables with two or more logical levels of row or column headers.

9. Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.

10. Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker (frequency 2 Hz – 55 Hz).

11. A text-only page, with equivalent and up-to-date information, shall be provided when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way.

12. When utilizing scripting languages to display content or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text so that it can be read with assistive technology.

13. When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in, or other application be present to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet.

14. Electronic forms shall be designed to allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality as to complete and submit the form, including directions and cues.

15. A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.

16. When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.


Higher education institutions would benefit to remember that the pursuit of accessibility – including all digital content, demonstrates a spirit of inclusiveness that benefits everyone. Embracing the challenge to meet the needs of all students is a noble pursuit, but it’s should not just stop at formulating and adopting policy. It’s important to create awareness that fosters a healthy shift in campus culture. When this is the approach, the motivation to support all students drives every conversation, and the fear of legal repercussions becomes secondary. This should be the goal of every institution of learning.