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Website Design

A brief history of accessibility online

We hear the terms “accessibility,” “ADA compliant,” “508 standard” and “WCAG compliant” thrown around during many web development projects. However, experts on the topic rarely agree upon what the terms mean, let alone what to do about them. This confusion from this lack of clarity consumes resources that an organization could otherwise invest in their digital accessibility effort.

Let’s dig into the history of accessibility in an attempt to understand what this term really means for web design and development.

1990: ADA Signed into Law

On July 26, 1990, the civil rights legislation Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The ADA essentially prohibits discrimination and provides guarantees so that people with disabilities can fully participate in American life. One of the key elements of the ADA defines “places of public accommodation” as any location where the public participates in society. These locations had a new responsibility to provide “reasonable accommodations” for disabled individuals: wheelchair ramps, braille on ATMs, wider aisles, etc.

In the early 1990s, this provision included places like schools, businesses and stores. By the end of the decade, many of the social and economic activities defined under the ADA had migrated to online spaces. With this shift came an effort by web developers to make websites more “accessible.” These efforts took many forms, often dictated by the specific needs of users with disabilities. For example, new tools gave websites the ability to support users with various visual impairments using different contrast ratios. Developers also began using cascading style sheets (CSS) to separate a web page’s content from its design. This helped screen readers navigate each page.

While these individual efforts were important, the web accessibility movement lacked a universal set of standards.

1999: WCAG Published by the W3C

In May 1999, the W3C published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as WCAG. The WCAG served as a roadmap for web developers who wanted their websites to be more accessible to users with disabilities. While heavily HTML-centric, WCAG 1.0 provided a much-needed framework for making the web and other digital technology accessible.

WCAG 1.0 consisted of 14 guidelines, each addressing a theme and describing how to apply it to particular website features.

  1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
  2. Don’t rely on color alone.
  3. Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.
  4. Clarify natural language usage.
  5. Create tables that transform gracefully.
  6. Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
  7. Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
  8. Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
  9. Design for device independence.
  10. Use interim solutions.
  11. Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
  12. Provide context and orientation information.
  13. Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
  14. Ensure that documents are clear and simple.

The next evolution of standardization came with the publication of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines in December 2008. The WCAG condensed its guidelines for web accessibility into four main principles, with recommendations for each.


  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.


  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.


  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

Along with the WCAG 2.0 principles, there are also varying, testable levels of success criteria, known as Level A, Level AA and Level AAA. These components help determine exactly how accessible a website is, with A being a low level of accessibility and AAA being a high level of accessibility. The type of business you operate determines whether your website should comply with Level A, AA or AAA.

2017: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Updated

The adoption of an industry-wide guideline like WCAG 2.0 allowed for legislative action specifically addressing online accessibility. In 2017, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was updated to ensure federal agencies “develop, procure, maintain and use information and communications technology (ICT) that is accessible to people with disabilities – regardless of whether or not they work for the federal government.”

The revised standards set by Section 508 apply the WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria to both web and non-web electronic content. This is commonly referred to as “Section 508 compliance.”

Closing the circle, in 2018 the US Justice Department issued guidance that stated, “the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites.” Requiring businesses to include those who are disabled or impaired in their virtual markets and public spaces is “consistent with the ADA’s Title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.”

Accessibility at Parkway Digital

We build and maintain websites for a wide variety of clients, many of whom work directly with individuals with disabilities. However, accessibility is an essential piece of any web project, because a website visitor with physical or mental impairment(s) has the right to “reasonable accommodations.” Using a combination of design and development best practices, plugins and testing tools, we weave accessibility into the fabric of each of our digital projects.