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Understanding the Proposed Section 508 Refresh – Overview

Jonathan Avila 05/12/15

Section 508 is the portion of the Rehabilitation Act that covers the accessibility of information and communication technology used, developed, maintained, or procured by the United States Federal Government.

In February, the US Access Board (“The Board”) released their latest proposal to update the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines related to Section 508 (“The Refresh”).  These updates also contain revised guidelines for Section 255 of the Communications Act that apply to manufacturers of telecommunications products and services.  This latest proposal continues the trend to harmonize and/or incorporate standards and guidelines of Section 508 and Section 255 with each other and with international voluntary consensus standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, PDF/UA (PDF Universal Accessibility) and other standards related to digital accessibility such as ANSI 200.2 and EN301-549.  The proposed updates will modernize the standards to address new forms of ICT including techniques used on mobile devices, digital video programming, real-time communications, and dynamic web apps.

This proposal builds on the prior advanced notice of proposed rulemaking documents that were issued in 2010 and 2011, and incorporates comments from the public, industry and government.  The Board has held several public hearings and presentations on the proposed standards and guidelines during the past two months and they have stressed that they want to hear your comments.

The Board has been criticized by some in the public for taking so long to issue revised standards since the original standards took effect in June of 2001.  The Board started the process of updating the standards in 2006 and had issued two advanced notices of proposed rulemaking afterwards with the notice of proposed standards and guidelines coming in February of 2015.

The US Access Board is a small agency with limited but dedicated resources. To their credit, some of the hold up in the latest standards came from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  OMB took approximately 1 year to review the latest proposal which is considerably longer than the typical 90 day comment period.  The Board fielded hundreds of questions from OMB on the proposal and much time and resources were spent addressing their questions.  In addition, the Board had to consult with a third party to perform a regulatory impact assessment on the standards and guidelines’ impact and cost

In the last few months I attended both a public hearing and a webinar on the proposed standards and guidelines.  From these sessions I gathered that the Board would take the comments from this proposal to create the final rules.  The Board stressed in their meetings to submit comments for anything that is unclear or confusing.  The Board will address the comments where appropriate and applicable and then the final rule will be issued.  It is my understanding that the rule will then be reviewed again by OMB and then once any required changes have been made it will be published in the Federal Register.  At that time the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) will need to be updated and published and then after a period to be determined (e.g. six months) the standards and guidelines would be in effect for Federal procurements.  If the OMB review process is anything like the last review, that portion could take anywhere from 90 days to 1 year.  This timetable likely puts the effective date of the Section 508 Refresh into 2017.

Submitting Comments

The Board is seeking public comments on the rule as well as a preliminary assessment of its estimated costs and benefits. Comments are due by May 28, 2015.

Further information about the proposal is available on the Access Board’s ICT Refresh pageor by contacting Timothy Creagan at (202) 272-0016 (v), (202) 272-0074 (TTY), or 508@access-board.gov.

Comments can be submitted or viewed through the www.regulations.gov website. The proposed rule includes instructions on submitting comments.

For further information, visit the Board’s website.

In my next post I review some of the primary changes in the proposed Section 508 Refresh, including:

  • Structure of Standards and Guidelines
  • Harmonization and References to International Voluntary Consensus Standards
  • Technology Changes
  • Electronic Content (e.g. Documents) Accessibility
  • Role of the Functional Performance Criteria
  • Real-time Text Support
  • Interoperability Support

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