The ADA and Section 508: Explained in a Nutshell


Most Americans are aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It was signed into law over thirty years ago on July 26, 1990 by then President George H.W. Bush.

“The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life — to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an ‘equal opportunity’ law for people with disabilities.” website

The internet was a relative unknown at the time of the Act’s creation, and what to do about accessibility on the internet has been a challenge ever since. As more communities put “everything” on their websites, they are challenged to be certain that the information is accessible to everyone, particularly including people who have vision disabilities and hearing difficulties.

“But while technology has the potential to create a more inclusive future, it has also created further barriers. With technology so embedded in our lives, digital accessibility isn’t something that would be nice to have, but is a right for everyone. Yet when accessiBe, an accessible technology company, recently tested 10,000,000 websites, the vast majority hosted in North America, for accessibility compliance, it found that 98 percent of menus and 71 percent of online forms failed.” NBC News Think by Caroline Casey

Think about these random questions that an able-bodied person can quickly Google that a person with disabilities might be blocked from learning:

  • What day is my trash pickup?
  • Do I need to renew my dog license?
  • Where are the hurricane shelters in my hometown?
  • Where can I get tested for COVID-19?

Section 508

The problems with website accessibility are on two fronts: proper coding of the website itself, and even more importantly, creating PDFs and uploaded documents in a format that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the ADA doesn’t mandate website accessibility. (Remember, it really wasn’t a thing back in 1990.) But in 1998 the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to include Section 508, which states in part, “agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others.” website

The rules that govern who Section 508 applies to have changed over time, and grown to include almost every entity that accepts funds from the Federal Government. They used the WCAG 2.0 Level AA Success Criteria, and applied that criteria to both web and non-web electronic content.

To the shock of many in local government in January 2018, this meant that all documents uploaded to their websites had to be accessible.

Unfortunately, by this same time, many state and local governments had started to use their websites as archival storage of every PDF they had every published. The amount of work seemed impossible.

Many organizations have struggled to remediate old documents, but have found it easier to remove out-of-date documents first, rather than store them online.

The Rules of Accessibility

Luckily, the rules of accessibility are relatively simple, but they do not have any grey area. There are also tools built into many modern software programs that will help you identify any issues before you publish your document.

Although there are dozens of rules that any PDF must pass, there is a core set that everyone should be aware of, regardless of whether they are an executive or an administrative assistant. The main areas of concern that apply to every document that you want to post on your website include:

  1. All objects (images, charts, tables, etc.) must have Alternate Text that will explain the object to someone using a screen reader.
  2. All documents must have an internal Structure that users can use to navigate the document. In Word, this means using Heading styles.
  3. Documents must be formatted correctly, using proper typing skills, list creation, column layout, clear fonts and strong color contrast.
  4. Tables must be created in a Simple layout, with correctly labeled header cells.
  5. Forms must be created to correctly announce the content desired and explain all actions based on buttons, etcetera.
  6. Scanned documents must be converted into text versions that can be accessed by assistive technology and that are searchable.

Please see PDF Accessibility Overview for a more detailed look at the 32 rules the Adobe Acrobat Accessibility Checker uses.

The Nutshell

I have been teaching people how to make documents accessible since 2013, and have watched the work grow from something only people involved at the “nerd level” needed to know to a set of skills that everyone needs to know.

The original concern was for documents to be accessible to people who have a loss of sight or are color blind, and that audio content be accessible to people with hearing loss. As we look forward, there is already momentum to include special fonts for use for people with dyslexia, language changes to include those with learning disabilities, and specific design criteria for those with motor disabilities.

When I am teaching the classes, there are two primary things I want people to walk away knowing:

  • Anyone can create accessible documents if they slow down and create the document the correct way from the beginning.
  • This work is vital for the communities which we serve, and is only going to expand in scope. We will all have to know how to use the accessibility checker just like we all have to know how to use the spell checker.