The Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973, under 29 U.S.C. § 794d, mandates that all the Federal government agencies, subsidiaries, vendors, and partners must have to develop and procure any type of information and communication technology (ICT) to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. These standards mandated by the rule is in practice for 15 years to promote ICT which can be accessed not only by the employees of Federal agencies but also the public with any sort of disabilities.

Section 508 also now covers any form of technology procured by federal agencies, either developed internally or developed under contract with private firms. This covers all information technology and electronic entities, including web sites, software, hardware, and also computer networks, peripherals, and other infrastructural components. EIT or Electronics and information technology are defined in the official documentation as “any such equipment or connected systems or subsystems of the electronic equipment which are used for automatic acquisition, manipulation, storage, movement, management, display, control, interchange, switching, reception, or transmission of data or information.

The latest refresh of Section 508

Back in January 2017, an ICT standards revision of guidelines was done by U.S. Access Board which is referred to as Section 508 Refresh. This was also published in Federal Register, and mandates were made. These revised standards were aimed at modernizing the approach of the standards applications and to harmonize those with the international standards.

These updated standards further reflect the changes in the technology landscape with evolving technologies and convergence of existing technologies and solutions with multi-functional capabilities. You can find the evolution of smartphones as an example. So, the refresh aims at maintaining the existing structure of requirements by collaborating it effectively with the functional and technical standards and align those along with various product features.

As discussed above, revise of Section 508 Rehabilitation Act also brings harmonization with the international standards like the WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0) standards, etc. Further to this, conformance requirements of WCAG 2.0 may also be used to assess the compliance of web content, online documents, and also various software and applications to assess for compliance with Section 508. Moreover, for the mobile applications and software applications, the guidance of World Wide Web Consortium also applies WCAG 2.0 and Non-web ICT needs while assessing Section 508 compliance.

Guidelines for general compliance

The 2017 refresh made some fair restructuring of Section 508 by focusing more on the functions of various products and services than considering the types. Also, modern technology is more focused on combining various functionality in a single product of service than creating various kinds of new products. Restructuring of the guidelines and standards for Section 508 allows those who determine compliance to assess products and services based on their features than the type. This will reduce any confusion about the applicable requirements and guidelines, whereas the previous approach was to address similar kinds of issues across various types of products and services.

With the new refresh, the criteria of functional performance got updated, and some additional criterion got added. These are color perception, strength, and limited reach, etc. The criteria for functional performance were also linked to the cognitive disabilities individuals have. In fact, the functional performance criteria were not there in the proposed rule, but it was effectively included in the final rule. But in any case, functional performance criteria needed to be applied only when a certain technical standard cannot be met or if there is no such technical standard applicable.  Adding to it, there are many other performance criteria too, which may likely to be considered in the future for further refreshes.

Compliance for electronic documents

As we have noted above, electronic documents are also addressed explicitly in the latest refresh of Section 508. These were also covered previously, but those were not fully put into practice. With the most updated requirements for Section 508, electronic content compliance is limited to some specific information and documents categories which are communicated to the employees or to the general public for conduction of different agency businesses officially. The content standards per this are WCAG 2.0 A & A.A. conformance. Even though PDF/UA-1 is considered as the default standard, this was not incorporated in Section 508. The categories covered under Section 508 include but, not fully limited to:

  • Public-facing content, including website content, social media content, blog content, emails, etc.
  • Official letters covered under the jurisdiction of the Federal agency/ies.
  • Policy documentation, announcements, and external or internal programs.
  • Notices of program eligibility, benefits, employment opportunities, or personal action, etc.   
  • Surveys and questionnaires.
  • Standard templates and input forms.
  • Emergency alerts and notifications.
  • Receipts and acknowledgments.
  • Training materials for educational or training purposes.
  • Intranet content resented on web pages. 

However, there are major two exceptions to the refresh as:

  1. The archival copies which are retained to preserve the original image of any hard copy, and
  2. Draft version documents to access draft content by employees having disabilities covered under Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act.

So, may ask the question of whether they need to be compliant. The fact is that even you’re your organization is not needed to be compliant legally with the accessibility standards, it is a good practice to follow. As Section 508 compliance is aimed at creating equal opportunity for all sort of users to get access to goods and services; it an opportunity for you as a business person than being a burden. For those who are planning for it, ACA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines is the right place to start with to make your website accessible to all. Department of Justice has further considered using the WCAG 2.0 level A.A. as standard on the board websites and content.

In fact, if you take care of it at the first point, it is very easy to build a Section 508 compliant website. If you run a business organization which has different developers and designers to update your site content, they should be given an orientation of Section 508 compliance and ways to achieve it. Otherwise, you may find yourself in trouble when some strict governance is going to come in terms of accessibility. It is also imperative for someone to make their website accessible in order to get search engine optimization advantages too.

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