When we use the term “508 compliance,” it means that information and communication technology (ICT) – such as a website, software program or electronic document – can be accessed by everyone, whether they have a disability.
The “508” refers to Section 508, an amendment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This federal law states that all ICT used and procured by the federal government and all its departments and agencies must follow accessibility guidelines. Federal employees with disabilities should be able to access ICT in the workplace just as easily as employees without disabilities. Members of the public who have disabilities must be able to access government websites, and websites of organizations receiving any form of government funding, and documents like everyone else, too.
Furthermore, Section 508 establishes that the federal government and its agencies cannot procure ICT that isn’t fully accessible. It can’t do business with website developers, software applications, multimedia providers or other ICT companies unless they, too, are in compliance with Section 508.
Exception to the 508 Compliance Requirement
One of the major exceptions would be if the process of achieving 508 compliance posed an undue burden – that is, if it came at an unreasonable cost, or was extremely difficult to achieve. However, even if a federal agency could prove it, the onus would be on this agency to find another accessible way of providing the electronic information to people with disabilities.
Not every organization is required to be 508 compliant, but a great many are. They include, as we mentioned above, all federal government departments and agencies. Section 508 compliance or ICT accessibility is often also a requirement for receiving federal funding, even when an organization such as a school is not technically a covered entity under the federal law.
The California Government Code’s Section 111351, for instance, declares that all state governmental entities and other recipients of state funds must comply with Section 508’s requirements for accessible technology. The Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA)2 states that all Illinois universities and state agencies must ensure their websites are barrier-free for people with disabilities. Although the IITAA includes its own standards for accessible technology, there are plans to harmonize these with Section 508 standards. Other states have similar requirements for 508 compliance.
The Section 508 Update
Earlier this year, the United States Access Board updated the ICT accessibility requirements of Section 508. It was necessary for several reasons. Technologies are constantly evolving, and it’s critical that accessibility standards reflect this if they’re to be of continued value. It’s also important for these standards to align with other guidelines for digital accessibility used in other jurisdictions. The update was designed to make it easier for organizations to understand and comply with Section 508.
The main changes to the legislation include:
- Applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the universally accepted standards for web accessibility, to all digital technology.
- Focusing on functionality – i.e. how well a technology works for people with disabilities – rather than descriptions of specific types of products, which can quickly fall out of date.
- Requiring functionality even when assistive technology is used. (Assistive technology refers to hardware and software used by people with disabilities to access computers and websites. Examples are screen reader programs like JAWS, or joysticks in place of a mouse.)
- Requiring digital accessibility to consider not just people with vision, hearing and physical disabilities, but also cognitive, learning and language disabilities.
A covered entity’s websites, blogs and social media posts that are available to the public must all be accessible under Section 508. In some cases, however, even information that’s not so public is required to be 508 compliant. The update specifies that employment opportunities, official receipts, training materials, emergency bulletins, intranets, and certain other forms of electronic communication must be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
What If You’re Not 508 Compliant?
If a federal department or agency is not in compliance with Section 508, people with disabilities can file an official complaint. They also have the option of launching a civil lawsuit.
A lack of 508 compliance can lead to repercussions in the private sector as well, even for non-covered entities. For example, a private company may lose an opportunity to do business with the government. That’s because the federal government and its agencies are prohibited from procuring any software or electronic technology from a non-compliant company.
It’s also important to note that private businesses not covered under Section 508 are still compelled to follow the WCAG 2.0 technical requirements on their public websites to avoid any possible Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) related lawsuit. They could potentially face – and certainly are facing – litigation by people with disabilities who are unable to use their websites to shop, get information, download coupons or do their banking.
Ignoring 508 compliance also means losing business from people with disabilities themselves, who have more than $200 billion in discretionary spending. When your website and other digital technologies are not fully accessible, it’s a frustrating experience for people with disabilities. And it’s one that, ultimately, compels them to go elsewhere to spend their money.
Achieving 508 Compliance
Improving your digital accessibility may not be an overnight process, but it’s entirely doable, and can pay dividends. An experienced, qualified 508 compliance consulting firm can do a thorough audit and evaluation of your website, mobile apps or other digital properties, testing with individuals with disabilities, who are actual users of assistive technology where applicable. It can also provide remediation services if and where they’re needed. Going forward, the firm can provide monitoring to ensure the website remains 508 compliant.
There are also resources available from the U.S. Access Board. This agency is offering upcoming webinars in its Section 508 Best Practices Webinar Series3. The aim of these events is to provide training on the recent updates to Section 508 standards. Previously held events are available to organizations in the Archived Webinar Trainings section.
Whether your organization currently does business with the federal government, aspires to do so in the future, or simply wishes to attract and delight customers and clients with disabilities, 508 compliance will have you on the right track. It’s very much a goal worth pursuing.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- California Government Code’s Section 11135 Onecle, 2016.
- Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA) Illinois Department of Human Services.
- According to ADA regulations Section508.gov.