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This post highlights some of the most crucial aspects of the Section 508 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) draft standards release by the US Access Board early in December.

Overview and Relevance to WCAG

The advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) now contains 6 specific chapters (note chapters 1 and 2 are duplicated for both Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act).

  • Chapter 1 – Application and Administration
  • Chapter 2 – Scoping Requirements
  • Chapter 3 – Functional performance criteria
  • Chapter 4 – Hardware
  • Chapter 5 – Platforms and applications
  • Chapter 6 – Documentation and Support Services

The volume of the ADNPRM has been consolidated from 9 to 6 chapters. This was achieved by the removal of redundant language that listed each specific Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0 success criteria and now includes WCAG success criteria by reference. The prior ANPRM also indicated that if a product met WCAG 2.0 success criteria that it would meet Section 508 requirements. This problematic language was removed. Section 508 is far more broad then WCAG 2 and addresses operating systems, hardware, and other telecommunication solutions.

Scoping

In addition to previously covered content types, the ANPRM now explicitly indicates what content such as documents are covered under Section 508 and what content is not. The following types are indicated as applicable:

  1. Content that is public facing;
  2. Content that is broadly disseminated throughout an agency, including templates;
  3. Letters adjudicating any cause which is within the jurisdiction of the agency;
  4. Internal and external program and policy announcements;
  5. Notices of benefits, program eligibility, and employment opportunities and decisions;
  6. Forms, questionnaires and surveys;
  7. Emergency notifications;
  8. Formal acknowledgements and receipts; or
  9. Educational and training materials.

Explicit exceptions are documents that are solely for archival purposes and documents that are not in final form. The ANPRM however makes clear that other laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act still apply even when Section 508 does not. Any applicable content then must comply with WCAG 2 requirements. This broadens the formal scope of the standard to not only cover content that is posted to the internet or an intranet but to email communications that fall within the guidelines above.

Functional Performance Criteria

The proposed language has been updated to clearly indicate that the functional performance criteria apply to all types of content not only content that does not meet the technical requirements and is subject to equivalent facilitation. This is indicated by a reference to the functional performance chapter in each of the subsequent chapters on hardware and platforms and applications.

The functional performance criteria were updated to be more testable. For example, the criteria for users with low vision has changed from

“(b) At least one mode of operation and information retrieval that does not require visual acuity greater than 20/70 shall be provided in audio and enlarged print output working together or independently, or support for assistive technology used by people who are visually impaired shall be provided.”

to

“302.2 With Limited Vision. Where a visual mode of operation is provided, ICT shall provide at least one mode of operation that magnifies, one mode that reduces the field of vision required, and one mode that allows user control of contrast. “.

While this provides a testable and repeatable rubric and it also limits the scope of the functional criteria to a specific set of items. This could be dangerous if multiple modes of access are not explicitly required. For example, someone could argue equivalent facilitation rather than meeting the technical requirements and provide a mode of operation that is not keyboard accessible but meets the magnification, contrast and field requirements. Then have a separate mode of operation is that is for screen reader users with very tiny text. Some vendors have already tried this approach or providing compartmentalized access by disability type with no alternatives if a user has needs that fall outside of the specific set of requirements for one disability type. The Access Board must clarify how these functional performance criteria work together or add language that allows for a wider scope within each functional performance criteria.

Additionally, several new functional performance criteria were added from the original Section 508 standards such as one to address the needs of people with photosensitive epilepsy.

Biometric requirements are not indicated under this section although it would appear a good place for them. Currently they are listed in the chapter for hardware. Biometric requirements such as not requiring the user to possess a particular physical characteristic (such as a finger or iris) would appear a functional rather than technical requirement.

Hardware

The hardware section expands the current Section 508 standards requiring speech access to receipts and tickets as well as requiring real time text access when real time voice communications are provided. The chapter on hardware does not mention any specific requirements regarding medical equipment but does address one button access to video description and captioning. The ANPRM does contain some specific requirements on the size, font, and contrast of characters used on hardware displays. Although the contrast requirements for the display and contrast requirements indicated for symbols and markings simply indicate that they must “contrast visually” and must be either light on a dark background or dark on a light background. Without specific measurements such as luminosity or contrast ratios these contrast standards will be difficult to test and enforce.

Platforms and Applications

The ANPRM includes new information about authoring tools and the requirements that these tools must possess to all authors to create accessible and compliant content. These provisions will certainly not only affect what authoring tools are procured but the accessibility of the content produced.

For example, Section 504.2 addresses editing and creating content. The ANPRM indicates that “Authoring tools shall provide a mode of operation to create or edit content that conforms to all Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and all Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0 (incorporated by reference in Chapter 1) for all features and formats supported by the authoring tool. Authoring tools shall retain the option to override information required for accessibility.”

Furthermore, chapter 5 indicates that “At least one template for each template type provided within the authoring tool shall conform to all Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and all Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0 (incorporated by reference in Chapter 1).”

Section 502.3 addresses accessibility usage such as applications programming interfaces (APIs). It indicates “Where platform documentation is available to application developers, platforms and applications shall conform to 502.3.”. This requirement indicates that developers must correctly follow documented APIs and known methods in order to achieve compliance with the law. This strengthens the interoperability requirements of the current Section 508 standards.

Documentation and support

Under the current Section 508 requirements product vendors were only required provide accessible documentation upon request of the user. This was often seen as an opportunity to say that the documentation was accessible in theory but did not require the documentation to be provided in accessible format unless a user requested it.

The ANPRM is very clear that “When ICT support services provide documentation, documentation materials shall conform to 602.3.” Section 602.3.1 indicates “Documentation in electronic format shall conform to all Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and all Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0 (incorporated by reference in Chapter 1).” Alternate Formats are still covered under 602.3.2 “ Alternate formats shall be provided upon request.”

The documentation and support sections still address communications needs of the user as well as documenting accessibility usage and keystrokes for a product. Although under the new ANRPM, accessibility features and information must be provided in the documentation and not just provided upon user request.

Conclusion

There are many positive changes in the updated ANPRM for ICT standards. There are some items that will need to be updated by the Access Board to ensure the intentions of the standards are followed and can be evaluated consistently. All interested parties are strongly encouraged to make comments before the March 7th, 2012 deadline. The updated ANPRM can be found at http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/refresh/draft-rule.htm#_Toc310327562.