Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 USC § 794d) requires that when U.S. Federal government agencies develop, procure, or maintain, information and communication technology (ICT), that it is accessible to persons with disabilities. The standards, which have been in place for over 15 years, promote ICT that can be accessed by the public and employees with disabilities.
Section 508 covers technology procured by a federal agency under contract with a private entity or produced within the agency itself. It applies to all Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) including software, web sites, web applications, and hardware applications such as computers, networks, peripherals, and other types of electronic office equipment. EIT is defined as “any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information.”
Section 508 Refresh
On January 18, 2017, revised ICT standards and guidelines created by the U.S. Access Board (generally referred to as the “Section 508 Refresh” or “the Refresh”) were published in the Federal Register. The revised standards and guidelines modernize the approach of standards application, and harmonize with international voluntary consensus standards and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act.
The updated standards reflect changes in the technology landscape due to development of new technologies, the convergence of technologies and the increasingly multi-functional capabilities of products such as smart phones. The Refresh broadly maintains the current structure of the requirements with technical and functional standards, but arranges the technical standards around product features rather than types of products. The Section 508 revised standards bring harmonization with international standards, most notably the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), which are incorporated by reference. This means WCAG 2.0 conformance requirements are used to measure compliance of documents, web content, and software (when applicable) for Section 508. In addition, for software and mobile apps, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Guidance on applying WCAG 2.0 to Non-web ICT needs to be taken into consideration when determining compliance with Section 508.
Federal agencies must comply with the new Section 508 standards by January 18, 2018, one year following the publication of the standards. A safe harbor has been created for ICT that is used, maintained, or developed after January 18, 2018 and already complies with the current Section 508 standards. As long as the ICT has not been altered in a way that affects the user interface, data, or interoperability it will not have to follow the revised standards. When ICT is altered, the component that was altered will have to meet the revised standards while the unaltered components would continue to fall under the safe harbor.
General Compliance Guidance
The Refresh follows the prior advanced notices by restructuring Section 508 around the function of products and services rather than types of products or services. After all, modern technology often combines different functionality into one product or service.
Restructuring the standards and guidelines allows those determining compliance to evaluate the product or service based on the features that it has rather than what type of product or service it is. This should reduce confusion about applicable requirements and remove repetitive standards and guidelines that were previously placed in each section to address the same issues across product types.
The functional performance criteria have been updated and some additional ones added (e.g., color perception and limited reach and strength). Functional performance criteria have also been added related to cognitive disabilities. The proposed rule had dropped the functional performance criteria for cognitive accessibility, but it was later added back in to the final rule. However, the functional performance criteria need only be applied when a technical standard can’t be met or when there is no applicable technical standard. In addition, there are other functional performance criteria that may also likely need to be considered in the future (e.g., depth perception).
Electronic documents are explicitly addressed in the Refresh. Electronic documents were arguably covered under the previous standards especially when posted to websites, but those requirements were not always put into practice. With the current Section 508 requirements, coverage of electronic content is limited to specific categories of information communicated by agencies to employees or to members of the general public during the conduct of official agency business, as determined by the agency mission. The standards for this content are the WCAG 2.0 A and AA conformance requirements. Although PDF/UA-1 was considered as a standard, it was ultimately not incorporated into Section 508.
Covered categories include:
- Content that is public facing or broadly disseminated within the agency, including websites, blog posts, social media posts, emails, etc.;
- letters adjudicating any cause within the jurisdiction of the agency;
- internal and external program and policy announcements;
- notices of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity, or personnel action;
- questionnaires and surveys;
- forms and templates;
- emergency notifications;
- formal acknowledgements or receipts;
- any educational and training materials; and
- intranet content presented as a web page.
There are two exceptions to covered content:
- archival copies retained solely for preserving an exact image of a hard copy, and
- draft versions of documents (access to draft content by an employee with a disability would likely be covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as an accommodation).