Have you ever tried to browse the Web without a monitor? Or enter a URL without a keyboard? How about scrolling through a thousand pictures without touching the screen?

This is something like the everyday experience of many who rely on assistive technologies to access the Internet but have to contend with websites poorly designed to accommodate special needs. Back in 2002, when few websites were compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, that was most of them.   

I remember when my development team was tasked with a major redesign of a state agency website. At the time, Section 508 was just four years old (enacted in 1998) and the modern web was still in its toddler phase.  Our team was desperate for unambiguous guidance, so we hired a trainer to help us create a better web experience for site visitors with disabilities.

Her first lesson was humbling—and exhausting! Our trainer had us experiment with the assistive technologies of the day, including screen magnifiers, screen readers, mouth sticks, and head wands.  We were stunned at the level of difficulty they presented and how rapidly we fatigued from their use. 

With the aid of this experience and her many recommendations, we helped rid the site of its least-friendly features: image maps, pop up alerts, visually-biased language like “click here,” and its lack of alt text to put images and other features in context.

Just last week our team performed refresher training on the state of the art in Section 508 compliance. To my surprise, the landscape for accessible development has gotten both better and worse since the early days of the Millennium.

A few positive changes:

  • “a11y” as shorthand for ‘accessibility’ is starting to grow in popularity
  • Nearly all major assistive technologies have improved, particularly the use of virtual keyboards, eye tracking, and speech-to-text (and text-to-speech) conversions
  • Major operating systems now are shipped with built-in assistive technologies, obviating the need for purchase and management of third-party tools
  • Rather than update every few years, for most issues of accessibility Section 508 now refers to WCAG 2.1 specification, which outlines best practices for building pages optimized for perception, operation, and understanding
  • section508.gov now provides documentation, checklists, and toolkits to remove much of the ambiguity involved in Section 508 compliance

And a few new pitfalls:

  • As the web has improved, and grown more visually rich and responsive there are more potential points of failure, particularly with highly interactive web applications
  • As web technology has expanded and become democratized, there is also a greater likelihood of inexperienced developers inadvertently coding inaccessible websites

If you haven’t taken your team through a similar review of the websites and pages they maintain, here’s some intel to share. The most critical parts of the new WCAG 2.1 standards and Section 508 compliance focus on:

  • Navigability – Ensuring that simple keyboard navigation can suffice, and controls are distinct, unambiguous, appropriately labeled, and do not require special keyboard or mouse tricks
  • Readability – Appropriate levels of contrast and markings, and multiple reinforcing factors are made to provide cues as to the purpose of various page elements, with special attention paid to people with cognitive and visual disabilities
  • Understanding – Context of content and page elements are to be made clear, text is simplified for legibility and clarity, and content is arranged according to hierarchies and semantic meaning of document elements

As your team considers the work of re-implementing sites to be Section 508 compliant, consider the wisdom of implementing accessibility into their development culture moving forward. Ultimately, when implementing these logical, common-sense changes, your development team will come to realize they’re not just building better websites for people with disabilities, they’re building a better Web, period.

And, to give you a taste of where your current sites stand, in terms of accessibility, you may want to try out some of these tools:


  • The WAVE Evaluation Tool – A Chrome plugin by WebAIM to evaluate your site against WCAG 2.1 guidelines
  • pa11y – An automated open-source accessibility tool
  • NVDA – An excellent, free screenreader
  • The Colour Contrast Analyser (CCA) – A tool to determine text legibility for users with limited vision
  • Section508.gov’s Testing – A treasure trove of testing and accessibility standards and resources for every major form of electronic information