Section 508 refers to a part of the US Rehabilitation Act that eliminates barriers for people with disabilities when accessing electronic and information technology from the Federal government.
It goes further than that as well as Federal contracts are only issued to 508 compliant organizations. It makes sense for your organization to make your website accessible.
Let’s take a step back for a second. When Benjamin Franklin was alive in the 18th century, “information technology” didn’t get any more advanced than setting words in cast-metal type at his printing shop. Ben Franklin couldn’t have predicted the high-tech, electronic communication methods of today. And he wouldn’t have a clue what “Section 508” meant.
Yet he knew that progress comes naturally to humans and that we can always expect technology to move forward, as he famously stated: “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
Some concepts are indeed timeless. When the Rehabilitation Act was first passed in 1973, its fundamental purpose wasn’t any different than it is today: to ensure equality for people who happen to have disabilities. That purpose has remained unaltered for more than 40 years.
The Rehabilitation Act applies to the federal government and all its departments, plus any programs and organizations that receive funding or contracts from the federal government. It prevents unfair discrimination against people with disabilities, whether they are federal government employees, or members of the public looking for information or services. That has never changed.
What Does 508 Compliant Mean?
But in 1986, a very important amendment known as Section 508 was made to the legislation, to address a modern advancement that had cropped up quickly: electronic and information technologies. These technologies were creating new barriers for people with disabilities, and consequently shutting them out.
Being 508 compliant really means that all Federal agencies must go as far as ensuring that their information technology does not pose “an undue burden” on members of the public with a disability.
For example, computers became an increasingly essential tool in day-to-day business, but the way to use them was becoming more graphically based. What if you were blind, and couldn’t see the icon you were supposed to click on? What if you couldn’t use your hands well enough to manipulate a mouse? How could the law ensure that you could still fill out government forms on the computer like everyone else – or, for that matter, be considered a candidate for a computer-based government job?
The new Section 508 checklist saw to it that people with disabilities would have equal access to the rapidly progressing information technology.
Section 508 was further strengthened in 1998, when it was replaced by the new Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act (we still call it Section 508, though!). This was an improvement because it included enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance. It was also the first law to provide specific accessibility standards for websites. (You can view the section 508 standards for website design online on the United States Access Board website.1)
History is Still Unfolding!
More and more, we’re using the Internet to interact with the world. According to a survey by Pew Research, two-thirds of American adults went online in 2014 to connect with government – for instance, to apply for benefits, renew a driver’s license, or look up information about a government program.2 And as we’ve already established, if there’s one thing that never changes about information technology, it’s that it’s always changing.
Today, we’re using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets in addition to desktop computers and good old-fashioned phone calls.
The United States Access Board’s Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) is in the process of releasing new and improved standards to reflect our shifting technology. This is known as the Section 508 refresh,3 or ICT (Information Communications Technology) refresh.
Basically, new electronic devices are being invented and modified so quickly that it no longer makes sense to have rules that try to cover all possible products. Instead, the Section 508 requirements will be focused on functionality. The bottom line will be, does it work for people with disabilities?
The Section 508 refresh will also harmonize international accessibility standards and guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).4 Should everything to as planned, we’re anticipating this update will likely go into effect in March of 2017.
Should You Be Concerned with 508 Compliance Testing?
Properly checking that your organization’s website is accessible is important, because it may not be as disability-friendly as you think.
Some software and online tools provide automated 508 checkers, but it’s a mistake to rely solely on these for 508 compliance testing, or accessibility testing in general. Studies have shown they will miss a significant number of violations or provide false positives.
Only qualified humans with the right expertise are likely to catch most or all of a website’s accessibility problems. It’s considered a best practice to combine automated testing with manual and functional testing by people with disabilities.
What if you’re not a government agency? Do you need to be concerned with Section 508 compliance?
The Rehab Act only applies, after all to:
- Federal government websites
- Any private websites that are doing business with a federal agency
- Any private websites that are receiving federal government funding
If your organization doesn’t fall under the first category, surely it aspires to fall under the second or even the third!
Even if you don’t care about Section 508 software compliance, you likely have responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law is broader than the Rehab Act and applies if you operate a business or non-profit agency, or manage a state or local government department, and provide services to the general public. You are required to ensure that your services, your premises and digital media, including your website, are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Couple this with the fact that the federal government can only issue contracts to 508-compliant organizations, and doesn’t it make sense to eliminate digital barriers?
Remember what Ben Franklin also said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” By making all your electronic information compliant with Section 508, you are prepared for anything.
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.
- Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology. United States Access Board, December 21, 2000.
- John B. Horrigan And Lee Rainie. Connecting with Government or Government Data. Survey by Pew Research Center, April 21, 2015.
- Proposed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines. United States Access Board, February 27, 2015.
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).