The Rehabilitation Act ensures that people with disabilities are treated without discrimination by federal government departments and agencies, and programs receiving federal funding. It’s been in place since 1973. Section 508 of the Rehab Act was added in 19981 to address the inaccessibility of technology.
Section 508 contains accessibility standards that must be adhered to by all federally funded government agencies, and companies selling ICT (information and communication technology) to the federal government. There are other organizations that are obligated to comply with Section 508 as a condition of receiving funds.
The accessibility standards of Section 508 were recently refreshed. In a previous post, we listed four ways that the revised standards effectively remove barriers in areas where the previous standards had not kept up with modern usage of technology.
Let’s explore other ways in which the Section 508 update is superior to the previous accessibility standards, and why we’re all going to benefit from them.
1. It’s more specific about the types of technologies that must be accessible.
Under Section 508, any electronic and information technology (E&IT) for the general public, such as websites and electronic documents, must be accessible. The updated Section 508 specifies types of non-public electronic content that must also comply with accessibility standards. The list includes training materials, internal program announcements, job postings, templates and forms, electronic receipts, intranet content and more. It’s also clear that the new accessibility standards apply to operating systems.
2. It takes performance and functionality into account.
Unlike the quaint fax machines and photocopiers of the 1980s, devices today are multi-functional, and can be operated in different ways using different interfaces. The new accessibility standards ensure that all of the various functions and operations of a software program or electronic device, not just some of them, are usable in some fashion by people who have various disabilities.
This includes computer hardware and software, online training, websites, intranet sites, user guides for software and tools, phone systems and copiers. For example, if a device is voice-activated, there must also be a way to operate it without using speech. If it’s operated manually, it can’t be impossible to handle by someone with limited dexterity.
3. It addresses more disabilities.
The accessibility standards of the new Section 508 are intended to remove barriers for a much wider range of people with disabilities. Technology must be accessible for people who are blind, deaf or quadriplegic, but it must also meet the needs of people with learning disabilities, people with color blindness and people with cognitive disabilities, among others.
More than one in five people have disabilities, making this group the largest minority in the United States, and yet their disabilities and abilities can take a wide variety of shapes and forms. It’s important to be inclusive of everyone – fair treatment shouldn’t be dependent on one’s specific type of disability.
4. It ensures that ICT is compatible with assistive technology.
Many people with disabilities use specialty software or devices to operate their computer, tablet or smartphone. For example, some people with physical disabilities use switches or voice controls. Some people with vision disabilities use screen readers that scan the text on a page and read it out loud, while others rely on screen magnification software. The updated Section 508 makes it clear that operating systems and software must be compatible with assistive technologies like these.
5. Its accessibility standards are harmonized with international standards.
Like an increasing number of accessibility standards around the world, the refreshed Section 508 incorporates the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Incidentally, WCAG 2.0 is also referenced by EN 301 549, the new European standard for digital accessibility, as well as equivalent standards in Australia and other countries. When technical requirements are identical across jurisdictions, they are easier to comply with, and they’re also more up to date.
What is the “Safe Harbor” Clause?
Clause E202.2 of the revised Section 508 applies to so-called “legacy ICT.” If existing ICT was in compliance with the previous accessibility standards, and it hasn’t been altered in any way since the new standards came into effect, then it can be considered exempt from the updated standards.
However, it’s worth noting that any technology that doesn’t keep up with accessibility standards certainly won’t make a positive impression on the marketplace, going forward. The federal government has provided a “Revised 508 Standards Roadmap” tool to assist agencies with incorporating the updated accessibility standards2.
We all benefit
Everyone benefits from updated, harmonized and consistent accessibility standards. Suppliers and manufacturers can follow one universal set of technical requirements, yet be in compliance with accessibility standards in multiple jurisdictions, opening up a much wider marketplace.
Furthermore, current accessibility standards mean that the digital content, software and electronic devices in everyday use are available to many more people in many more settings. For people with disabilities, the benefits of up-to-date accessibility standards have the potential to be life-altering. Additionally, there’s less confusion – fewer opportunities for misinterpretation, for instance – when we’re all following just one set of 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 and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.