Everything You Need to Know About Section 508 Compliance for Websites

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Throughout the U.S. and throughout the world, the number of laws requiring equal web and electronic accessibility for all are growing. In the U.S., Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is at the forefront. While it does not apply to privately owned websites, such as individuals’ or private businesses’, it does require accessibility for all federal websites and electronic materials. Section 508 was updated in January 2017 to take new technologies into account, and to improve enforcement. Federal agencies and groups had a year to comply with the update, and should now be in compliance. We’ve compiled the highlights and details of the Section 508 update to give you everything you need to know about Section 508 compliance for websites.

Everything You Need to Know About Section 508 Compliance for Websites

What does Section 508 Require?

Section 508 is intended to make electronic government resources available to people with disabilities. It was originally added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998, and then updated in 2017. Section 508 includes electronic government resources needed or requested by the public as well as employees, so it affects internal and public-facing federal websites and resources equally.

Section 508 explains and defines key areas that must be accessible. The following subsections are quoted or paraphrased from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Appendix A to Part 1194.

  • Communications: This includes a wide range of messages, forms, surveys, announcements, notices of benefits, web pages, training materials and more that communicate information to an employee or user.
  • Hardware: “A tangible device, equipment, or physical component of [information communication technology] ICT, such as telephones, computers, multifunction copy machines, and keyboards.”
  • Software: “Programs, procedures, rules, and related data and documentation that direct the use and operation of ICT and instruct it to perform a given task or function. Software includes, but is not limited to, applications, non-Web software, and platform software.”

Generally, the bar for accessibility compliance in Section 508 is measured against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 2.0 AA provides direction for many accessibility rules worldwide.

What Does Section 508 Compliance Look Like for Websites?

The new Section 508 update measures compliance against WCAG 2.0 AA, the same standard used in most of the world. Like Section 508, WCAG 2.0 AA does not give specific tasks that webmasters must fulfill to make a website compliant and accessible. Instead, the rules outline what accessible websites should do, with a focus on functionality instead of form. This gives webmasters the power to implement a solution works best for their needs.

The following are some of the most common website accessibility obstacles and concerns addressed in WCAG 2.0 AA:

  • Design: The design of your website is essential to accessibility. Your design decides how pages are organized, your color scheme, navigation buttons and much more. Starting with an accessible design can make Section 508 compliance much easier.
  • Navigation: To be accessible, your website should be navigable with a keyboard, as many assistive devices work similarly to a keyboard. For example, your navigation menu should be activated on click instead or (or in addition t0) hover.  It’s also helpful to have multiple navigation options for large websites, such as a site map or search bar.
  • Text: Text should be relatively large and clear. Users with sight challenges should be able to magnify the text without altering the functionality of the site or the meaning of the content.
  • Pictures: Pictures should not contain essential information, unless the information is also conveyed through alt text. This is particularly important for charts and graphs or buttons.
  • Video: Videos should contain accurate subtitles.

Who Does Section 508 Apply to?

Section 508 applies to ICT of all federal agencies and the federal contractors who produce it. While it does not cover states or state governments, many states have adopted accessibility guidelines modeled after Section 508.

Though Section 508 provides specific rules governing ICT used by federal agencies, Section 504 extends the Rehabilitation Act to ensure equal access to any federal assistance. This includes any group which receives federal funding, such as many schools, libraries, and airports, among others. Section 504 does not make specific mention of ICT, but instead requires governing departments to enforce accessibility internally. For example, the U.S. Department of Education is in charge of administering Section 504 in schools. The accessibility of ICT through groups which receive federal funding and fall under the purview of Section 504 will be decided by the governing department, most likely with guidelines similar to Section 508.

Are There Exceptions?

There are some exceptions to Section 508. National security systems are explicitly exempt from Section 508. Some equipment used only for maintenance, repair, or monitoring are also explicitly exempt from Section 508.

What About Systems and Content Before the Update?

All systems and content that was in compliance with the original Section 508 standards before the 2018 update will still be acceptable under the “safe harbor” clause. ICT in compliance before January 18, 2018, when the update went into effect, will still be acceptable. However, any ICT updated after this time must be in compliance with the new rule.

Who Enforces Section 508?

The 2018 update to Section 508 imposes more specific accessibility rules for federal contractors. As federal contractors must adhere to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), the enforcement and regulation through contracts will be administered through FAR.

The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (AKA the Access Board) is responsible for researching and developing Section 508 guidelines. The Access Board is also responsible for future reviews and updates to account for changes in technology.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) Office of Government-wide Policy will provide assistance to federal agencies creating or updating content or systems, and developing procurement guidelines.

The recent update to Section 508 focusing on functionality and foundational support through WCAG 2.0 AA brings web accessibility forward in the United States. Federal agencies provide a model for web accessibility compliance, and Section 508 provides a framework for equal access. Just as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act forged a path for the Americans with Disabilities Act to require equal access to private business, Section 508 may eventually become a compliance model for web accessibility for private enterprise as well.