Everything on Section 508 Compliance
(Credit: Revised 508 Standards and 255 Guidelines)
In March 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final update for Section 508’s accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT). The update was intended to provide a stricter definition of “accessibility,” and to bring the requirements in line with the radically new technology of the 21st century.
There are 4 major change in the 2017 revision:
- WCAG compliance. By 2017, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) had published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The 2017 update formally established the WCAG as the accessibility framework that agencies should use. Most federal websites are required to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance.
- Content accessibility. All official agency content that’s aimed at the general public has to be accessible in forms that accommodate different disabilities, including visual impairments, hearing difficulties, deafness, and cognitive, language, and learning disabilities.
- Synchronization. At the root level of technological design, all software and operating systems must be compatible with assistive technologies that might be used by people with disabilities, such as screen readers.
- Expanded Marketplace. Lawmakers wanted to use Section 508 to create a larger market of accessibility solutions by incorporating international standards into US government policy.
What are the differences between Section 508 and ADA?
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is America’s oldest accessibility-related legislation. Thanks to 2 updates to Section 508, it requires all federal agencies and any bodies that accept federal funding to make their technology accessible to people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a more recent piece of legislation that encompasses many aspects of accessibility. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in private entities that are classified as “public accommodations” as well as in federal agencies and bodies.
Both acts relate to accessibility for people with disabilities, but there are important differences between them.
Strictly speaking, Section 508 is a set of rules for government entities, although it includes any organizations that receive federal funding.
That means that government-supported institutions like museums or universities, medical centers that accept Medicaid or Medicare, and programs run by organizations that are partially federally funded all have to abide by Section 508, a requirement that was put to the test by lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT in 2015.
Section 508’s accessibility rules also affect contractors or third-party workers that provide services for government bodies or organizations that receive federal funds. That means that any digital platform or website that’s in any way connected with a body that receives federal funds and is used by the public, has to comply with Section 508.
Small businesses should keep this in mind if they want to go after government grants or contract work with federal agencies.
Unlike Section 508, the ADA affects the entire private sector. Businesses and places of work such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, and daycare centers are just some of the places that have to comply with the ADA.
ADA requires businesses to make accommodations to their employees, and to their customers or users. In the words of the law itself, no disabled person may be “excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services” of a publicly accessible business. Businesses have to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities.
A steady stream of lawsuits and court rulings over the last few years has confirmed that ADA applies to websites and online portals just as much as to physical stores and offices, stretching to over 2,000 ADA lawsuits filed in 2018 and tens of thousands of demand letters. Through courts of law, it’s become clear that in practice, “reasonable modifications” means that if the technology exists to make an online tool or content accessible, the business or organization has to use it.
What do businesses need to do to comply with Section 508?
Section 508 originally did not lay out specific rules for web accessibility compliance, although companies can get clearer guidance from the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency devoted to accessibility issues.
At the beginning of 2018, lawmakers added a rule to Section 508 that set the WCAG 2.0 as the accessibility standard for Section 508 compliance, so most federal organizations and other federally-funded bodies need to meet Level AA compliance.
When it comes to the ADA, the situation is less clear. The Department of Justice and several U.S. courts have frequently referenced the WCAG success criteria as benchmarks for compliance. However, the DOJ has declined to adopt the WCAG as an official legal standard for the ADA, preferring to leave flexibility for companies to decide what compliance looks like for their websites. This flexibility is more of a curse than a blessing because companies aren’t sure how to proceed to be sure that their websites won’t fall foul of the ADA. But the WCAG seems to be the best measure of web accessibility for both the ADA and Section 508.