Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law passed more than 40 years ago. This law ensures that all federal government departments and federally funded agencies give fair treatment to people with disabilities.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act specifies that all electronic information and communication technology (ICT) used or procured by federal agencies must be fully accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities. This includes websites, apps and any electronic document such as PDFs. Companies that supply ICT to the federal government are also covered by Section 508. In addition, some organizations are required to comply with Section 508 standards in order to receive federal funding.
When Section 508 was updated last January, its standards for ICT accessibility were refreshed.1 Previously, Section 508 had listed its own set of requirements for removing barriers from ICT.2 The new update instead refers covered entities to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level A and AA, a set of technical requirements for digital accessibility that is accepted universally.
This is an important change. Incorporating WCAG 2.0, Level A and AA, as the accessibility standard means the government’s ICT will contain fewer barriers and be usable by many more people with disabilities. The previous set of Section 508 technical standards, having been published in 2000, was outdated. It left accessibility gaps and did not reflect current technology and how we use the web today.
Here are just four examples that demonstrate the ways in which the previous Section 508 standards failed to remove all barriers from today’s web technology, and how the new update can be expected to improve accessibility.
- Old Section 508 Standards: Every non-text element on a web page was required to have a text equivalent (alt-text), so that people who are blind and use screen readers would understand what was in the images.
- Update: It’s actually not appropriate for every non-text element to have alt-text. That’s because a screen reader will systematically read out all the alt-text on the page, even text that is non-essential. If an image is purely decorative, then including a text alternative for it will only waste the user’s time. WCAG 2.0 specifies that decorative images should be ignored by assistive technology by adding a blank alt-text.
2. Electronic forms
- Old Section 508 Standards: Previously, the standards included a fairly vague instruction about electronic forms. Section 508 only noted that online forms should allow people using assistive technology “to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.”
- Update: Forms today are even more complex than they were in 2000. WCAG 2.0 explains with detailed instructions how web developers can ensure that online forms are accessible to all users with a range of assistive technologies. This explanation includes how and where to place instructions and labels, how to group form fields, how to incorporate error messages, and so on. These very specific instructions were completely missing from the old Section 508.
3. Moving Content
- Old Section 508 Standards: Since seizure disorders can be aggravated by flashing lights, a standard was put in place for the flickering rate of screens. Under this standard, pages had to be designed to prevent the screen from flickering within a certain range (2 to 55 Hz). This way, seizures wouldn’t be triggered when users visited the website.
- Update: Websites have a great deal more moving content than they used to. They may contain animation, scrolling, flashing and blinking. Considering how integral some of this moving content may be to a web page, the old Section 508 limit was too restrictive, as it banned any flickering at all within a very broad frequency range. WCAG 2.0 describes an array of techniques for incorporating moving and flashing content that will not trigger seizures.
4. Text-Only Page
- Old Section 508 Standards: A text-only page could stand in as an alternative to a web page if it wasn’t possible to design the page to meet accessibility standards. Whenever content on the main page changed, the text-only page would have to be updated as well.
- Update: Adding a text-only page to mirror the main page, instead of designing the primary page to be accessible in the first place, is not an equitable solution. It means a large number of people with disabilities are denied the full experience of the original web content. We know it’s not overly cumbersome to design ICT to conform with the technical standards of WCAG 2.0 Level AA. (In certain cases, however, it may be difficult to meet Level AAA – which is why Section 508 and many other regulations point to AA as the level to strive for.)
Four Principles of Accessibility
WCAG 2.0 focuses on the foundation of what makes web content usable by everyone: it should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. These four principles can be applied to any technology now in existence, as well as any new technologies yet to come. If content can be perceived by everyone, if the website is usable by everyone, if the information and operation can be understood by everyone, and if it’s compatible with a wide range of devices and assistive technologies (robust), then it’s considered to be accessible.
Improving the Rehabilitation Act with the world’s most up-to-date standards for removing digital barriers is a positive move. It means that the ICT covered by this act will reach a broader range of people, and that even people without disabilities will find it easier to use.
The deadline to comply with this update is coming up on January 18, 2018. If you haven’t yet brought your digital properties into compliance, get in touch with a professional firm that can help you ensure you’re meeting the requirements of the new Section 508 standards.
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.
- Executive Summary, United States Access Board, 2017.
- Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology, United States Access Board, 2017.