WCAG vs. Section 508: A Showdown Between Two Accessibility Giants

I received my Section 508 Trusted Tester certification in August of 2023. My decision to get Trusted Tester certified was motivated only by the free price tag, compared to the $485 exam fee for non-IAAP members. Had I known that the certification process for Trusted Tester is far less accessible than the process for CPACC, I might have taken them in reverse order. However, the focus of this blog post is not on the certifications, nor my experiences with either. Instead, this post will explore differences between Section 508 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Starting with a high-level comparison, it is important to understand that Section 508 is a United States Federal law which requires federal agencies to procure Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products and services that are accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1986, with updates to the law added in 1998, and the Section 508 Refresh in 2017. Despite existing for 37 years, and having received two significant updates, Section 508 is still based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 dated December 11, 2008, while also containing a few requirements which are not part of WCAG 2.0.
(Note: for the purposes of this blog post, we will only be discussing the part of Section 508 known as §1194.22, standards for accessible web-based intranet and internet information and applications).

In contrast to Section 508, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of globally recognized technical standards, first published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1999, with version 1.0. The latest version, WCAG 2.2, was officially released on October 5, 2023.

An important distinction between WCAG and Section 508 is that while Section 508 is primarily a procurement law for the U.S. federal government, WCAG guidelines are a recognized standard around the world; with different countries implementing one of the four WCAG versions. Also, in contrast with Section 508, WCAG is written in plain language and organized around a set of four key principles, which provide structure and context to the various guidelines and success criteria in a way that is easy to understand and reference.

Besides the overall structure and language differences employed in Section 508 and WCAG, there was one big difference between the two, which directly effected developers and accessibility testers until recently. In Section 508, section 302.7 With Limited Manipulation, says “Where a manual mode of operation is provided, ICT shall provide at least one mode of operation that does not require fine motor control or simultaneous manual operations.” However, one of the new success criteria in WCAG 2.2 directly addresses one form of manual operation of the user interface. 2.5.7 Dragging Movements says that “All functionality that uses a dragging movement for operation MUST BE achievable by a single pointer without dragging, unless dragging is essential or the functionality is determined by the user agent and not modified by the author.”.

It is nice to see that the W3C has been working hard to keep the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines up-to-date with modern technologies; even filling in gaps that existed between WCAG and Section 508. One only hopes that the U.S. federal government will similarly update Section 508 to reflect changing web standards and development technologies sometime in the near future.


Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2

Section 508

2 thoughts on “WCAG vs. Section 508: A Showdown Between Two Accessibility Giants”

  1. Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written much better! Looking at
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