Section 508 standards are federal acquisition requirements that apply to information and communications technology (ICT) that is developed, procured, maintained, or used by federal agencies. The standards promote ICT that can be accessed by the public and employees with disabilities. The current Section 508 standards were issued in 2000 and became effective on June 21, 2001. As expected, the standards are now largely out of date and often not consistent with current hardware or software development trends. To address this, great effort has been made to update (or “refresh”) Section 508 to harmonize the standards with guidelines for Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act.
At the July 13th US Access Board meeting the Board’s ICT Committee reported that the final text of the Section 508 Refresh was finished and they were drafting the preamble. Once the preamble is complete and the regulatory assessment finalized it will be sent to the Board for vote by the end of summer and then on to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB has 90 days to review). Thus, the final ruling for the Section 508 Refresh is expected in Q4 2016 with it becoming effective six months later once the federal acquisition regulations are updated.
Agencies and those supplying ICT products and services should start updating their processes, and documentation as soon as possible. SSB BART Group has deep experience with the WCAG 2.0 standards and proposed changes and can assist your organization in creating or updating your organization’s accessibility roadmap before the Section 508 Refresh becomes effective.
By statute, the scope of Section 508 is limited to the federal sector. It does not apply to the private sector, nor does it directly impose requirements on federal funds recipients. However, the Department of Education interprets the Assistive Technology Act (AT Act) to require states receiving assistance under the AT Act State Grant program to comply with Section 508, including the standards of the Access Board. In a similar fashion, other agencies administering federal programs – notably, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) – have interpreted Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to cover all co-funded federal and state programs. This includes the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which are funded in part with federal funds. In practice, such interpretations generally require that any state-level programs funded in part with federal funds be accessible to people with disabilities and, in turn, conform to the Section 508 requirements.
Many US states and some local governments have also adopted the current Section 508 standards and require them in procurement.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was released for public comment in February 2015. Public hearings were held in March and April 2015 and the comment period closed at the end of May 2015. The NPRM will incorporate these comments by the end of June 2016, which will be reviewed and approved by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) by October 2016. The board approval is expected during the Access Board meeting scheduled for November 7-9, 2016. This would make the new Section 508 effective on January 12, 2017 with the complaint window opening in May 2017.
Once the final rule is published, application will generally trail by some period of time. Significant rules are effective 60 days after publication in Federal Register (Executive Order 12866). In the case of Section 508, this is principally an administrative date. The complaint window is the primary conformance driver, so most organizations focus on that date instead. The Access Board indicated that they planned to make the effective date six months from publications in the federal register to harmonize the date with the publication of the standards in the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).