The updates help set the tone for what the federal government sees as a baseline for accessibility policies.
A part of The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires that government agencies provide individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services and activities. Specifically, Section 508 deals with electronic and services, including web page content, PDF documents and audio and video content and specifies requirements to ensure that all web content is accessible to people with disabilities. The latest update to Section 508, known as “the refresh,” went into effect March 21, 2017.
The number of people affected by Section 508 is significant. As much of the 10 percent of the population may be affected by blindness, low vision, learning disabilities or other difficulties that impair their abilities to access information. Section 508 mandates that federal agencies allow easier navigation, accessibility and readability through, for example, navigation aids embedded into documents that allow software to “read” materials in the right order, textual descriptions of images that the computer can “read” to people who cannot see them and adjustments to fonts and colors that make materials easier to read.
While the act is specific to federal agencies, its effect is much broader, as local and state governments, educational organizations and even private corporations often incorporate the requirements by reference -- some because of legal requirements, some because it’s a good business practice.
This article focuses on what changed in the refresh and how the refresh affects agency systems. The good news is that if agencies complied with the original Section 508 rule, then they are ahead of the game concerning the refreshed rule. Simply put – agencies that were compliant are still compliant because there is a “safe harbor” clause embedded in the new rule that exempts existing or “legacy” IT from having to meet the refreshed rule. Keep in mind, though, that new or updated web pages created after the new rule went into effect must comply with the new rule by January of 2018.
While the discussion below enumerates a number of important changes that the refresh incorporates, the more important point is that the law helps set the tone for what the federal government sees as a baseline for accessibility policies, and it provides a renewed focus on the importance of making electronic content accessible to people with disabilities.
The following summarizes major changes as categorized in the Access Board guidelines:
Restructuring provisions by functionality instead of product type to keep better pace with the increasingly multifunctional capabilities of technology. The original standards used a product-by-product approach, mandating specific features to support common assistive technologies and specific use cases. For example, in 1998 mobile devices were rare and not addressed. The new standards take a functionality-based approach that will better keep pace with technological advances.
Incorporating the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The final rule incorporates by reference a number of internationally accepted voluntary consensus standards, including WCAG 2.0. Issued by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. WCAG 2.0 is a globally recognized, technology-neutral standard for web content. The final rule applies WCAG 2.0 not only to web-based information but to all electronic content.
The benefits of incorporating the WCAG 2.0 into the Section 508 standards are significant. A substantial amount of WCAG 2.0 support material is available, WCAG 2.0-compliant accessibility features are already built into many products, and it promotes international harmonization as it is referenced by the European Commission, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and France.
Specifying types of non-public facing electronic content that must comply. In addition to public-facing materials, the standard also specifies non-public electronic content used by a federal agency for official business to communicate other important information, such as emergency notifications, initial or final decisions adjudicating administrative claims or proceedings, internal or external program or policy announcements, notices of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunities or personnel actions, formal acknowledgements or receipts, questionnaires or surveys, templates or forms, educational or training materials and web-based intranets.
Requiring that operating systems provide accessibility features and clarifying that software and operating systems must interoperate with assistive technology. The standard includes requirements for software that directs the use and operation of technology for applications and mobile apps, operating systems and processes that transform or operate on information and data. These provisions cover the interoperability with assistive technology, applications and authoring tools, such as screen-magnification software and refreshable Braille displays.
Addressing access for people with cognitive, language and learning disabilities. There’s a recognition in the standard of addressing other disabilities, such as making sure there are not flashing lights on the screen that might cause difficulties for some people as well as making sure that distractions are reduced.
Harmonizing the requirements with international standards. In 2014, the European Commission adopted the “Accessibility requirements for public procurement of information and communications technology products and services in Europe” (EN 301 549). European governments can use the requirements as technical specifications or award criteria in public procurements of technology products and services. The Access Board has worked to ensure broad harmonization between its requirements and the European Commission’s standards.
While Section 508 is a mandate for materials produced by the federal government, the standard is applicable to any organization that wants to make materials more accessible. Being 508 compliant is simply good business. It will make it easier for all customers to find content, and for employees to work more easily. That’s a rule refresh maybe we should all think about.
To learn more about Section 508 and the refreshed rule, you can visit Section508.gov.