Section 508 Standards: Why Newer is Better

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The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973 to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the federal sector. Section 508 of this law, added later, sets out the requirement that information and communication technology (ICT) must be accessible to people with disabilities. This means that websites and apps, as well as other forms of ICT such as information kiosks and telecommunications equipment, must not contain technological barriers that make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to use them.

Section 508 applies to all federal agencies in the U.S., but it also applies to any organizations receiving federal funding. Furthermore, even though the Rehab Act is a federal law, there are states and even local governments that have their own legislation requiring certain groups to comply with Section 508.

For example, Oklahoma has its EITA law (EITA stands for “Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility”), which was modeled after Section 508. All state agencies in Oklahoma are required to comply with the EITA law. So are post-secondary schools, as well as the state’s Department of Career and Technology Education system.¹ In the state of Minnesota, the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 specifies that covered agencies must comply with Section 508 standards.²

What Do We Mean by Section 508 “Standards”?

When we talk about Section 508 standards, we’re referring to very specific accessibility criteria that websites and other ICT must adhere to. Instead of simply stating that websites cannot contain any disability barriers, Section 508 lists certain requirements that must be followed.

But technology, of course, is always evolving. So is our knowledge about accessibility barriers, and what sort of design elements can make it easier–or harder–for people with disabilities to use online technology. Thus Section 508 has undergone changes since it was first introduced. Each time, it has meant an improvement in the way people with disabilities are able to use technology.

1986: Section 508 is Added

Section 508 was first added to the Rehab Act in 1986, thirteen years after the federal law was passed. Section 508 included some guidelines for accessibility in technology. However, these were non-binding and non-enforceable. They also didn’t address accessibility standards that were specific to web technology, as this type of technology was not in widespread use at the time.³

1998: Section 508 is Strengthened

In 1998, a new and improved Section 508 was incorporated into the Rehab Act. This was considered superior to the 1986 version. For one thing, it now came with enforceable standards, which were issued by the U.S. Access Board in 2000. Within these standards, different types of ICT were grouped together into categories, and technical requirements were provided for each category.4 For the category of “web-based intranet and internet information and applications,” the requirements included criteria such as:

  • Providing a text equivalent for every element, such as an image, that is in a non-text format. This was helpful for people who couldn’t see the images and relied on screen-reading software to read out all text on their screen.
  • Providing multimedia in alternate formats, e.g. adding text captions to audio information, or adding descriptive audio to visual information. This was helpful for people who couldn’t hear the audio or see the visual information.
  • Ensuring that whenever color was used to convey information (e.g. “all available time slots are shown in green, and all filled time slots are in red”), the same information was conveyed without using color. This was helpful for people who couldn’t see the screen, or couldn’t distinguish between the colors.

Including web accessibility standards with Section 508 was a positive step. It made it easier for organizations to comply with Section 508, and ensure their websites could be used by people with disabilities. There was now also a process for filing complaints about inaccessible websites that violated the Section 508 standards.

2017: Section 508 is Updated

Two years ago, an updated Section 508 was drafted. With this update, which was officially signed in 2018, a new approach to web accessibility standards was taken. Instead of listing its own specific requirements for web accessibility, Section 508 now pointed to a much more universal standard – the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Covered entities must now meet the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0, level AA, for website accessibility.

This is, again, an improvement, for many reasons. For one thing, WCAG 2.0 is the most widely used standard for digital accessibility in the world. Laws in all kinds of jurisdictions, including the E.U. and Canada, require compliance with WCAG 2.0. Now, agencies that are obligated to adhere to Section 508, but wish to comply with other accessibility standards too, will only have to be concerned with one set of criteria.

WCAG 2.0 is also designed in such a way that it can be applied to current technology, yet will still be relevant as new technologies are developed. Another bonus: There is a great deal of resource material already available online to help with the implementation of the WCAG 2.0 technical requirements.

As the U.S. Access Board points out in its overview of the Section 508 update, there are many products and software programs already on the market with built-in accessibility features that were created to be compliant with WCAG 2.0.5

Most importantly, WCAG 2.0–and its WCAG 2.1 update–reflect the best collaborative effort, by the world’s top experts in web accessibility, to ensure that the Internet is as usable as possible by the widest variety of people with disabilities.

In other words, agencies that comply with Section 508 standards are providing the highest level of service to all people, including those with disabilities who use their websites.

If being inclusive of all people is an important goal for your organization—whether a federal agency, federally-funded, or not—get started on your way towards accessibility with our WCAG 2.1 Checklist: an interactive resource guide for digital marketers, content writers, and accessibility professionals alike. Or better yet, contact us to speak with an accessibility expert today.

References

  1. Oklahoma Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility, Oklahoma IT Accessibility Legislation and Resources
  2. A System of Technology to Achieve Results, Minnesota Department of Administration
  3. Questions & Answers about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, United States Access Board
  4. Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22), United States Access Board, June 2001
  5. About the Update of the Section 508 Standards and Section 255 Guidelines for Information and Communication Technology, United States Access Board, January 2017

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