What is section 508?

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a landmark legislation in the United States that aimed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities and promote their equal opportunities in various aspects of life. It was the first significant federal law to address disability rights and set the stage for subsequent disability rights legislation.

Section 508 compliance refers to adherence to accessibility standards outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998. Section 508 mandates that federal agencies in the United States ensure their electronic and information technology (EIT) is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.

Key aspects of Section 508 compliance include:

  • Scope: Section 508 applies to federal agencies, including departments, agencies, and organizations receiving federal funding. It encompasses various forms of electronic and information technology, such as websites, software applications, multimedia content, documents, and hardware.
  • Accessibility Standards: Section 508 sets forth technical standards for accessibility, which are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. These standards define criteria for making EIT accessible to individuals with disabilities, covering aspects like keyboard accessibility, alternative text for images, captioning for multimedia, and more.
  • Compliance Requirements: Federal agencies are required to ensure that their EIT meets the Section 508 accessibility standards. This includes procuring accessible technology, designing and developing accessible digital content, and providing accommodations or alternatives when necessary.
  • Exceptions and Alternatives: Section 508 recognizes that there may be instances where meeting the accessibility standards is not feasible or would cause undue hardship. In such cases, agencies must provide an alternative way for individuals with disabilities to access the information or technology, such as through an accessible equivalent or assistive technology.
  • Documentation and Reporting: Federal agencies are required to document their compliance efforts, conduct regular accessibility assessments, and maintain accessibility documentation. They must also report on their accessibility progress and provide individuals with disabilities with means to request accessible information or services.

Section 508 compliance plays a crucial role in ensuring equal access to information and technology for individuals with disabilities within the federal government. It promotes inclusive practices, facilitates effective communication, and supports the rights of individuals with disabilities in their interactions with federal agencies.

2017 revision of the Rehabilitation Act

In January 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule updating the accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) covered under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The updated rule was effective on March 21, 2017, and brought significant changes to the Section 508 standards. Here are some key changes:

  • Adoption of WCAG 2.0: The updated Section 508 standards incorporated the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA as the technical requirements for web and digital accessibility. WCAG 2.0 is a globally recognized standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This alignment with WCAG 2.0 provided a more robust and comprehensive framework for ensuring accessibility.
  • Expanded Scope: The updated standards expanded the scope of ICT covered under Section 508. It included a broader range of technologies, such as software applications, websites, electronic documents, multimedia, and telecommunications products. The intention was to ensure that all forms of digital content and technology provided by federal agencies are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  • Functional Performance Criteria: The final rule introduced the concept of Functional Performance Criteria (FPC) as an alternative means of achieving accessibility. FPC focused on the desired functional outcome of an ICT rather than specifying technical requirements. It allowed for flexibility in meeting accessibility objectives, accommodating technological advancements and innovations.
  • Compatibility with International Standards: The updated Section 508 standards aligned more closely with international accessibility standards, including WCAG 2.0. This alignment aimed to facilitate harmonization and consistency with global accessibility requirements, making it easier for organizations to meet accessibility obligations across different jurisdictions.
  • Refreshed Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards (ICT Refresh): The updated Section 508 standards were part of the ICT Refresh initiative, which also included updates to the standards for telecommunications products covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act. This effort aimed to synchronize accessibility requirements and streamline compliance for covered entities.

The changes in the updated Section 508 standards aimed to enhance accessibility, improve usability, and ensure equal access to ICT for individuals with disabilities. By aligning with WCAG 2.0 and broadening the scope of covered technologies, the updated standards sought to promote greater inclusivity and accessibility in the digital realm.