Section 508: What It Covers and How to Comply

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Section 508 is an important accessibility law in the United States focusing on digital technology. In this overview, we’ll answer the following questions:

508 Compliance
  • What is Section 508?
  • Who does Section 508 apply to?
  • How does Section 508 compare to other laws?
  • How does my organization achieve 508 compliance?

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.

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Who does Section 508 apply to?

508 compliance is required for all federal agencies, and can potentially apply to their vendors as well. Government agency procurement teams specifically consider accessibility, which means your business could be precluded from lucrative opportunities supplying those agencies if your website, product, and/or service isn’t 508 compliant.

What does ICT include when referenced in Section 508?

Per, 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 a federal agency or 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.

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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, 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.

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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 2.0 Level AA criteria. (Learn more about the different versions and conformance levels in our blog on WCAG conformance levels.)

Perform an accessibility audit

With WCAG as your guide, it’s important to evaluate the current state of accessibility for your ICT and digital assets. An accessibility audit is a formal evaluation of your assets in which technical experts identify accessibility issues according to WCAG standards. As mentioned, Section 508 requires accessibility according to WCAG version 2.0 criteria, though conformance with version 2.1 AA is the more up-to-date standard now. in fact, Version 2.1 is often cited as the appropriate standard by the U.S. Department of Justice in civil rights enforcement actions. 

Implement remediation

Once you’ve audited your digital assets, the next step is remediating or fixing the accessibility issues found. A trusted accessibility partner should be able to offer guidance to help prioritize the issues which pose the most severe barriers to your user experience. 

Implement training

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 updates

The federal government issued an important update to Section 508 on January 18, 2018 to make it easier for organizations to understand and comply with Section 508 standards. For more details about the changes brought about by the Section 508 update, read our blog on the refreshed Section 508 standards.

Work smarter with an accessibility partner

Digital accessibility is achievable with the right knowledge and tools, but working with an expert partner can make the process easier. At eSSENTIAL Accessibility, we work with clients to perform accessibility audits, prioritize issues for immediate remediation, and implement accessibility training to ensure sustainable results. We also provide continued monitoring and analytics to help you evaluate progress.

To explore how a trusted accessibility partner can help your team achieve and maintain 508 compliance, get in touch with the eSSENTIAL Accessibility team today.

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