Note: This blog was originally published in April 2022. It has been updated to cover key developments in Section 508 enforcement from late 2022 and early 2023. These include new legislation that holds federal agencies more strictly accountable for meeting Section 508 requirements and reporting on the accessibility of their Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
Section 508 is an important accessibility law in the United States focusing on digital technology. In this overview, we’ll answer the following questions:
- What is Section 508?
- Who does Section 508 apply to?
- How does Section 508 compare to other laws?
- How does my organization achieve Section 508 compliance?
For a complete guide to Section 508 compliance requirements, access our e-book.
What is Section 508?
Section 508 is an amendment of the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act was the first major civil rights act in the U.S. to expand federal protections for people with disabilities. The Section 508 amendment came about as part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which was intended to expand employment, retention, earnings, and skill attainment of members of the U.S. workforce. Section 508 addressed, in part, barriers to accessibility in federal workplaces.
Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their information and communications technology—referred to as ICT—accessible to persons with disabilities. That includes not only employees of federal agencies who have disabilities, but also all of their users. This means that documents, training materials, applications, and software published by or for the use of federal agencies all need to comply with Section 508’s guidelines on accessibility.
Who does Section 508 apply to?
Section 508 compliance is required for all federal agencies and can potentially apply to their vendors as well. Government agency procurement teams specifically consider accessibility when making purchases, which means your business could be precluded from lucrative contract opportunities if your digital product isn’t 508 compliant.
Worth noting, while Section 508 is specific to the U.S. federal government, there are states following suit. For example, the State of California passed legislation in 2016 that extended Section 508 regulations to all state government entities. Other states like Colorado have since passed state-specific digital accessibility requirements similar to those in Section 508.
What does ICT include when referenced in Section 508?
Per EPA.gov, ICT is any equipment or system that is used to create, convert, duplicate, or access information and data. Examples of ICT include, but are not limited to:
- Internet and Intranet websites
- PDF documents
- Content on DVDs and CDs
- Online training
- Webinars and teleconferences
- Technical support call centers
- Remote access websites and tools
- Software and operating systems
- User guides for software and tools
Remember, Section 508 applies not only to ICT used by federal agency employees, but also ICT published by federal agencies for the use of the public.
Section 508 and other accessibility laws
If you’re not part of a federal agency or a federal contractor, you may think your ICT won’t be scrutinized for its accessibility. But even if Section 508 doesn’t apply to you, there are other accessibility laws that do. This section explores the similarities and differences between Section 508 and other major accessibility laws.
Section 508 vs. ADA
Contrary to popular belief, Section 508 is not part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, referring to Section 508 as “ADA Section 508” is a misnomer. The ADA is a separate law that was passed in 1990 to extend the rights written in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to people with disabilities. While both laws have implications for digital accessibility, the ADA is a much broader law, applying to all aspects of accessibility and all businesses in the public and private sector, while Section 508 focuses only on technology in the context of federal agencies and the organizations that do business with them.
Section 508 vs. Section 504
Like Section 508, Section 504 is an amendment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Where Section 508 applies to federal agencies themselves (and potentially, their vendors), Section 504 prohibits any organization that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of disability. Examples of such organizations include universities, public and private schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and more. Section 504 is often heard in discussions of accessibility in education.
Unlike Section 508, Section 504 does not explicitly address web accessibility. However, Section508.gov confirms that compliance requirements for Section 504 also include accessible digital assets.
Section 508 vs. Section 255
Those exploring digital accessibility may also have heard Section 255 uttered alongside Section 508 and Section 504 and assume they all stem from the same piece of legislation. However, Section 255 is a section of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a completely separate law from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that telecommunication products and services be accessible to people with disabilities. Examples of these products and services include wired and wireless telecom devices like phones, pagers, and fax machines, as well as devices that have telecom capabilities, like computers and modems.
Achieving Section 508 compliance
Understanding what Section 508 is and what it covers is a crucial first step, but when it comes to ensuring compliance, federal agencies and their vendors may be unclear as to what constitutes accessible ICT, and how to achieve accessibility. If you fit within this category, the following tips will set you on the right path.
Refer to WCAG
The best way to ensure the accessibility of your ICT is to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. While WCAG is not a piece of legislation, it is the global gold standard for web accessibility. In fact, Section 508 evaluates accessibility according to WCAG version 2.0 Level AA criteria. Importantly, however, a more recent WCAG version, version 2.1 is often cited as the appropriate standard by the U.S. Department of Justice in civil rights enforcement actions. Because WCAG is generally revised every few years, organizations should aim for Level AA conformance with the most up-to-date version of WCAG as a best practice. To learn more about WCAG and your organization’s path to conformance, access our interactive WCAG checklist.
Test your digital properties for accessibility barriers
With WCAG as your guide, it’s important to evaluate the current state of accessibility for your ICT. Organizations can use two types of testing, automated and manual, to assess WCAG conformance and identify accessibility bugs. While automated testing can be performed quickly and at a relatively low cost, manual testing is required to surface many issues automation can’t catch. Because each option has unique benefits, most organizations rely on a combination of the two to achieve and maintain Section 508 compliance.
Once you’ve evaluated the accessibility of your existing digital assets, the next step is remediating (fixing) the accessibility issues found. A trusted accessibility partner should be able to offer guidance to help prioritize the issues that pose the most severe barriers to your user experience.
To prevent accessibility barriers in the future, it’s important to train members of your organization in accessibility best practices and formalize your accessibility program and processes. This helps ensure that accessibility is built into design and development processes by default so your assets are produced with accessibility in mind, reducing the remediation workload in the future.
Recent Section 508 activity
Over the past few years, the federal government has demonstrated a renewed commitment to enforcing Section 508 requirements for agencies. Here are a few of the most recent developments surrounding the law:
- In February of 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice released its first report on Section 508 compliance in more than a decade, demonstrating a renewed commitment to enforcing digital accessibility at the federal level.
- In December of 2022, congress passed HR 2617, a piece of legislation that holds federal agencies accountable for Section 508 compliance. The bill mandates that agencies ensure their ICT meets Section 508 requirements, and begin reporting on compliance, after no more than 225 days (August 11, 2023).
- In June 2021, President Joe Biden released an executive order that called on federal agencies to evaluate the current state of digital accessibility within their organizations, and develop plans for remediation, as part of a broader push for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) within the federal workforce.
Work smarter with an accessibility partner
Digital accessibility is achievable with the right knowledge and tools, but working with a third-party expert can make the process easier. As the market-leading digital accessibility solution provider, Level Access offers the testing, technology, services, and training required to achieve and sustain compliance. Additionally, Level Access is the only digital accessibility platform cleared for security by the federal government’s FedRAMP authorization program, meaning federal agencies can implement our solution with minimal red tape.
To explore how a trusted partner can help your organization comply with Section 508, get in touch with the Level Access team today.
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