Section 508 is an important amendment to The Rehabilitation Act that protects the right of people with disabilities to have equal access to electronic and information technology. It sets standards that must be followed by every federal government department, as well as every organization that receives federal contracts or funding, and educational institutions that receive federal funding via the Assistive Technology Act.
The standards cover a lot of technological ground: computer hardware, software, networks, operating systems, multimedia, websites, printers and downloadable apps. If you fail to remove barriers in any of these areas, not only are you in violation of a federal law, but you’re also restricting opportunities for potential customers and clients with disabilities to access and enjoy your services.
There’s only one sure way to know if your website, electronic documents, apps and other digital properties meet the standards of this section of the Rehab Act: you must carry out Section 508 compliance testing to detect any and all violations.
Section 508 Compliance Testing Checklist
Previously, Section 508 listed a specific set of accessibility requirements that agencies and schools were required to follow for compliance. The newer, updated Section 508 is different. It instructs these organizations to adhere to a more universal standard that’s in wide use around the globe – Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. One of the many advantages of this shift is that when organizations follow the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0 (or the latest version, WCAG 2.1), they can be confident they’ll also be in compliance with other standards for accessibility that may be essential for funding or necessary under their company policy. Their digital properties will also be as accessible as possible to the end user.
What attributes or functions should you be checking for when you’re testing a website for Section 508 compliance, and how do these make a difference to people with disabilities?
Below is a brief 508 compliance testing checklist, along with explanations about why these attributes matter.
There are text equivalents for every essential photo, image, logo or other non-text element. (This means, for example, that there is text to describe the company CEO’s profile picture, but not to describe a decorative row of meaningless symbols across the top of the web page.) Text alternatives are important because people who have vision disabilities and can’t see the images properly will know what’s contained in them. They may, for example, be using a screen-reader like JAWS to read all the text on the page.
Pages don’t flicker at a frequency greater than three times per second. This reduces the risk that they will trigger a seizure in people with seizure disorders.
It must be possible to fill out online forms using assistive technology or using just the keyboard. If a form can only be filled out using a mouse to click from field to field, anyone who doesn’t have the hand dexterity to operate a mouse won’t be able to complete the form.
There must be enough contrast between the information on the web page and the background color. That way, the information is more readable by people with limited vision.
There should be a way for people to skip over long lists of navigation links or multiple logos to get to the main content. This means someone with a physical disability who can’t scroll down quickly and easily will be able to navigate straight to the main part of the page. Similarly, it’s easier for someone using screen-reading software to skip to the content they want to read.
Keep in mind these are just five of the many web accessibility criteria addressed by Section 508. More information about the requirements of Section 508 can be found on the website of the United States Access Board.¹
Is Section 508 Compliance Testing a DIY Project?
Can you complete this kind of testing yourself? It is certainly possible to do a limited amount of testing of your own website and other electronic products. You can use automated 508 compliance testing software products such as WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool), which will check web pages for Section 508 violations.
You can also test out your electronic technology and documents using screen readers and other kinds of assistive software and hardware, if you happen to have access to them. This is a fruitful way to uncover any barriers for people with disabilities who rely on these methods of navigating their computers, tablets or smartphones.
These approaches, however, won’t identify every accessibility problem. They may miss a sizeable number of them. Plus, if barriers are found this way, you’ll need to be able to understand what the technical glitches mean, and decipher any automatically generated reports. And you’ll also need to be able to fix them – because, of course, until these accessibility problems have been fully remediated, you’re still not in compliance with Section 508.
What Can a Section 508 Compliance Partner Do?
When you contract an accessibility partner to perform Section 508 compliance testing for your organization, you’ll notice that the testing is much more extensive than what most people are able to do themselves – with results that are a lot more detailed.
Let’s say you happened to be looking over the shoulder of a certified 508 compliance expert. Here’s what you’d see them doing:
- Using a combination of automated 508 compliance testing tools and manual checking for individual web pages, documents and applications.
- Having users (people with disabilities) of assistive technologies, such as JAWS, test for inaccessibility.
- Testing individual website functions such as online forms or product purchases, among others.
- Producing an in-depth report that not only gives an overall rating of the level of Section 508 compliance, but also identifies, explains and provides code-level solutions for individual violations of Section 508 regulations.
- Ensuring reports are jargon-free so they can be understood, and providing personal interaction with experts who can discuss the reports and answer questions.
- Offering remediation, including periodic monitoring, and providing status reports as improvements are made.
It’s safe to say that a qualified accessibility partner is pretty thorough! When it comes to the list of disability barriers that are found this way, there’s no “maybe” about them, since they’ve been tested and verified by a human expert.
That’s another advantage over automated compliance testing software, which often generates a list of “possible” barriers in addition to actual ones. This process may misidentify problems where none exist, causing confusion and wasted time.
When you have expert help, however, you can be confident that you’ve put the best possible effort into Section 508 compliance testing of your electronic and information technology.
Interested in learning how eSSENTIAL Accessibility is helping hundreds of organizations across the globe to achieve and maintain 508 compliance? Get in touch with one of our accessibility experts today.
- Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology. United States Access Board.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.