You shouldn’t worry about Section 508 – it’s Section 504

There is a misunderstanding about web accessibility that’s pretty prevalent: that being “accessible” means that you comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

One of the questions that comes up when initially exploring web accessibility is whether or not your web site even has to follow Section 508.

Odds are you probably don’t need to follow Section 5081.

However, there is a much better chance that you may need to comply with Section 504.

Section 504?!

Yes. Section 504.

Section 504 is 508’s lesser known, but much more broadly applicable sibling. And, it has teeth.

Section 504 states, in part, that:

"…no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity that … receives Federal financial assistance …"

That has a pretty broad reach. It was originally intended to force organizations to make physical accommodation for those with disabilities. However, more recently, the Federal government has taken the law to apply to the digital space as well.

By the letter of the law, if your organization receives any Federal financial benefit at all, you cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. That is to say, all of your websites need to be accessible.

Federal financial assistance can take many forms:

  • Small Business loans
  • Grants
  • Contracts

(I’m not sure if tax breaks count – that’s above my head.)

So, if your organization has received any federal money, at any point, you can possibly be held to comply with Section 504.

That could mean organizations such as:

  • Universities that receive federal research grants (which is most of them)
  • A business that receives an SBA loan
  • A non-profit that depends on grant money to perform its work

Unlike 508, Section 504 doesn’t contain specifics on what it means to be accessible. It just states that people with disabilities cannot be barred from benefiting from your service.

A lot of Federal agencies are basically concluding, though, that to comply with Section 504, websites need to meet WCAG 2.0 standards. I’m not clear yet on if they want A or AA, but AA is generally seen as the better benchmark.

So, before your organization decides that they don’t need to worry about web accessibility, because they don’t fall under 508 – remember, it’s 504 that you probably need to worry about.


1 Unless you are building a website that is explicitly for the Federal government, or a state/local government that has adopted 508 via local mandates, Section 508 does not apply.

Thank you to Katie Haritos-Shea for the correction on State/local governments.

  • SteveALee

    That sounds similar to the UK’s DDA in it specifies ‘service’ which includes websites. Though DDA is not dependent on government support. Interesting.