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June 18, 2019

Overview of Section 508 compliance

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What is section 508 Compliance? 

In the early 1970’s American lawmakers started to become more aware of the need for policies to accommodate citizens with disabilities. 

What first emerged from this was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law was not focused primarily on accessibility issues, but rather codified policies on how the government would treat and otherwise care for individuals with disabilities. The authorization of grants to States for vocational rehabilitation services was expanded. Federal responsibilities for research and training programs for individuals with disabilities were established. The Rehabilitation Act also laid out new responsibilities for various government agencies such as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for coordinating programs with respect to the disabled.

Over twenty years after its initial signing into law, the 1973 Act received an amendment addressing accessibility of technology. Section 508 as it has come to be called, mandates that any technology employed by a federal agency or department be accessible to those with disabilities. The law applies to both technologies that will (a) be utilized by federal employees and (b) those that members of the public will need to engage with in order to procure the services of, or information on, a government agency. 

The 2017 Revision 

In March 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule updating accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) covered by Section 508.

The primary goals of the 2017 updates were to first, give a more stringent definition as to what “accessibility” means when it comes to information technology, and second to update requirements in light of the ever-changing technological landscape. The revisions became obligatory in January of 2018.

The Access Board’s final rule made four major changes to the revised Section 508:

  • WCAG compliance - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that creates web standards. The 2017 updates formally established the WCAG as the framework by which agencies should model the details of their accessibility program. Most federal websites are required to meet Level AA compliance laid out in the WCAG 2.0
  • Content Accessibility - This update requires all public-facing official agency content to be accessible in a variety of forms in order to accommodate different disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing difficulties, cognitive, language, and learning disabilities.
  • Synchronization - synchronization means that at the root level of technological design, all software and operating systems must be compatible with assistive technologies disabled individuals may use to interface with a government site.
  • Expanded Marketplace - With the changes to Section 508, lawmakers sought to expand the availability and usability of access technologies across networks. By incorporating international standards into U.S. government policy, a larger marketplace of accessibility solutions would be created.

Section 508 Lawsuits

 The best way to assess the real-world applicability of a given law is to see who can get sued on its basis. 

A wide array of institutions have been hit with Section 508 lawsuits over the past decade. The types of organizations hit by these lawsuits--as well as the spectrum of claims by plaintiffs--are very telling as to how far Section 508 can go. 

NAD vs. Harvard and MIT

In 2015 the National Association of the Deaf (NDA) filed lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT citing violations of the Rehabilitation Act for the universities’ failure to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials. Shortly after initial complaints against the universities were filled, a Massachusetts judge rejected motions to dismiss, declaring the NDA’s claims as both plausible and at least in theory in line with Rehabilitation Act statutes. Litigation in these cases remains ongoing. 

Technically speaking, the NDA’s suits were based on another section from the Rehabilitation Act outside Section 508 which expands the law’s applicability to institutions like Harvard and MIT. The provision in question (which actually predates 508) prohibits all institutions that receive federal funding to discriminate against those with disabilities.

There are two very important take-aways from the NAD vs. Harvard and MIT cases: First, the requirements of Section 508 will apply to groups that are not governmental per se. Any organization that receives federal financial assistance is also required to comply. Second is that Section 508 standard can be enforced--at least in theory--despite the massive burden they would put on the organization. Harvard and MIT’s online education platforms boast massive amounts of material. Revamping their sites and online channels will be a major financial and logistical investment--a point brought up by the universities' lawyers in their motions to dismiss. Despite this, the court ruled that NAD’s claims had legal merit.  

NFB vs. Department of Education

In 2009, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed an administrative complaint with the United States Department of Education. The NFB’s claim targeted one of the Department’s websites U.S.A Learns, violates Section 508 as it was inaccessible to blind people who use text-to-speech technology or Braille displays to access information. 

What’s important to remember about the 2009 case, one of many filed by the NFB, is that U.S.A Learns was not the platform of a core function of the Department of Education, rather a free English-language learning website that happens to be operated by them. This fact highlights how any service or aspect of an online platform, regardless of whether or not it is central to the organization’s function, is subject to the rules of 508. 

Leiterman vs. DHS

In May of 2013, a blind attorney working for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sued his employer for failing to equip him with the accessibility tools necessary to perform his job.  

According to the plaintiff Michael Leiterman, countless hours of work time were lost as a result of system upgrades that interfered with his computer reading tools. Leiterman said he was constantly bogged down with troubleshooting new workarounds with the Department’s IT staff. As a result, he claimed he was unable to devote work time to other duties and professional development and was denied promotions. After DHS failed to get Leiterman’s suit fully dismissed, the department was forced to reach a settlement.

The Leiterman case helps the observer hone in on what really defines accessibility. In this case, the plaintiff was not claiming his government job was inaccessible for someone with his disability. Rather than technical difficulties in integrating accessibility tools made his work more difficult. Accessibility means ease of access comparable to normal modes.

Take Away Points

So to summarize:

  • Section 508 applies to all governmental agencies, contractors, or organizations that receive federal funding.
  • The requirements of Section 508 apply even if it requires the complete revamping of a platform and its content.
  • The standards of the WCAG have been recognized as the official benchmarks for 508 compliance.
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