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Section 508  Compliance

What is Section 508?

Section 508 is a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. One of the most prominent web accessibility laws in the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (or, as it is commonly referred to - Section 508) primarily focuses on ensuring that information and communication (ICT) products are accessible to people with disabilities. ICT describes both hardware and software, and includes websites, web-based applications (like PDFs and other online documents), mobile applications, video, and many other forms of digital media.

This law applies to three types of organizations:

  1. Government bodies
  2. Organizations that receive federal funding
  3. Service providers to government agencies and organizations that receive federal funding

The Rehabilitation Act: a brief rundown

In the early 1970s, American lawmakers started to become more aware of the need to enact laws that would protect the rights of citizens with disabilities. This culminated in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,  a law mainly affecting the ways in which the government would support people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act expanded the authorization of grants for state vocational rehabilitation services, established federal responsibility for research and training programs for individuals with disabilities, and tasked government agencies such as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare with coordinating programs for people with disabilities.

The introduction of Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act and its later revision 

As time progressed, there was an urgent need to update the Rehabilitation Act so that it would address rapidly evolving technological developments. To that end, Section 508 was introduced into the Rehabilitation Act in 1998. Under the original phrasing of this law, federal agencies were required to make their electronic and information technology (IET) accessible to people with disabilities. This was a significant step forward in ensuring equal access to information and technology for everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities.

This, however, would not be the final version of this law. In March 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final update to 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. 

Four major changes were introduced in the 2017 revision:

  1. WCAG as the standard for compliance: The 2017 update formally established the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the accessibility standards that agencies should use. Therefore, relevant bodies must ensure that their websites (along with other ICT products, such as online documents and videos) conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. We’ll explain what this means in detail in just a moment. You can skip to that section by pressing here
  2. Content accessibility: All official agency content that’s aimed at the general public has to be accessible in forms that accommodate different disabilities, including vision impairments, hearing impairments (e.g., deafness) along with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities
  3. 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
  4. Expanded marketplace: Lawmakers wanted to use Section 508 to create a larger market for accessibility solutions by incorporating international standards into US government policy

Who needs to comply with Section 508?

Section 508 applies to three types of organizations:

  1. Government bodies: Examples of such bodies include, but certainly aren’t limited to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Postal Service (USPS)
  2. Organizations that receive federal funding: Examples of such organizations include, but certainly aren’t limited to state universities and nonprofit organizations, such as the American Red Cross
  3. Service providers to government agencies and organizations that receive federal funding: Examples of such bodies are technology contractors (e.g., Lockheed Martin), and research institutions (e.g., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT)

Important note: If you plan on conducting business with federally-funded or government agencies and organizations, you will need to comply with Section 508, and will be expected to fill out a VPAT. We will expand on what that means in a minute.

What does achieving Section 508 compliance mean?

Section 508 is one of a few select web accessibility laws that point  to specific guidelines as the standard websites and other ICT products (e.g., online documents) must adhere to under the law. These standards are the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Throughout the years, a number of WCAG versions have been released, each consisting of three levels of conformance: Level A - the most basic level of conformance, Level AA - a more advanced level of conformance, and Level AAA, the highest level of conformance and the hardest to achieve.

Under Section 508, websites (and other relevant ICT products) need to conform to an earlier version of WCAG, WCAG 2.0, at Level AA. 

Conforming to WCAG 2.0 Level AA

To conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA, your website needs to meet a number of technical and design-based requirements. While the full list is longer, here are a few examples of such requirements:

  • Ensure compatibility with assistive technologies like screen readers
  • Allow for keyboard-only navigation
  • Add alt text to meaningful images (those that convey essential information)
  • Ensure sufficient contrast between text and its background color
  • Ensure that text can be resized to 200% without loss of content or function
  • Ensure that when website visitors adjust text spacing, there is no loss in functionality
  • Use clear headings and labels
  • Ensure your website is mobile-responsive
  • Provide audio descriptions and captions for videos

VPATs’ role in achieving Section 508 compliance

As part of your efforts to comply with Section 508, you will also need to fill out a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). Your VPAT will detail the changes made to your website and other ICT products to reach WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance. As filling out a VPAT can prove a lengthy process, and one which requires an intimate understanding and knowledge of WCAG, many organizations turn to expert service providers, like accessServices, to fill one out for them. Once the VPAT is filled out, it becomes an Accessibility Conformance Report, which can be featured on your website or presented by request.

To learn more about VPATs, press here. 

The consequences of not complying with Section 508

Failing to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (when it applies to you) is an act of discrimination against members of the various disability communities. Additionally, as it is a federal law, you can expect to face legal recourse, including potential lawsuits.

Notable Section 508 lawsuits

A range of Section 508 lawsuits have been brought against various institutions over the past decade. These lawsuits have revealed a lot about the applicability of Section 508:

  • 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 claimed that one of the Department’s websites, the U.S.A. Learns, violates Section 508 by being inaccessible to people who are blind who use text-to-speech technology or Braille displays to access information. The case was settled, and the Department of Education was ordered to make the proper modifications to the U.S.A Learns’ website so that it became accessible to people with vision impairments
  • NAD vs. Harvard and MIT: In 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT, which are both government-funded institutions. The NAD accused both institutions of violating Section 508 by failing to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials. Both parties have reached a settlement
  • Leiterman vs. DHS: In May of 2013, a blind attorney working for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sued the department for failing to equip him with accessibility tools so that he could perform his job. The plaintiff, Michael Leiterman, said that he lost countless hours of work time because system upgrades interfered with his computer reading tools, so he couldn’t carry out his other duties and professional development, and was therefore denied promotion. DHS was forced to reach a settlement

Section 508 vs the ADA: what’s the difference?

Both Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are long-standing, seminal pieces of anti-discriminatory American legislation. Because they both apply to web accessibility, the ADA and Section 508 are often confused with each other. However, there are key differences between the two laws. Let’s break them down:

1. Both laws apply to different organizations and individuals

Strictly speaking, Section 508 is a set of rules for government entities, although it includes any organizations that receive federal funding, and service providers to such organizations.

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.

Additionally, those who plan on working with federally funded organizations, may want to comply with Section 508 and produce a VPAT.

Conversely, the ADA affects the entire private sector. Businesses considered places of ‘public accommodations’ such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctor's offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, and daycare centers are just some of the places that have to comply with the ADA. Given that most businesses are public-facing, almost all businesses must comply with the ADA.

2. Section 508 has clear requirements regarding web accessibility

With its 2017 amendment, Section 508 officially sets WCAG 2.0 Level AA as its standard for compliance. This means that relevant bodies are mandated by law to ensure their websites and other ICT products conform to WCAG at that level.

When it comes to complying with the ADA, however, the situation is less clear.

A consensus has emerged in recent years that the ADA applies to online environments. To that end, many U.S. courts today apply the ADA to businesses’ websites, and point to WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 Level AA as the standard these websites should conform to under the ADA. This is consistent with the Department of Justice’s stance, made public a number of times (including via an official letter), in which WCAG is referenced as the standard websites should conform to under the ADA. However, it is important to note that nothing yet has been codified into law, and WCAG has yet to have officially been adopted as the standard for compliance under the ADA.

You can read more about the difference between Section 508 and the ADA by pressing here.

How can you know if your website is Section 508-compliant?

You can use a free web accessibility auditing tool to test your website for Section 508 compliance and WCAG conformance with ease. With accessScan, accessiBe’s Section 508 compliance checker, you’re presented with a holistic overview of accessibility errors and what needs to be adjusted to conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA. After a short moment, you will be presented with a score (compliant, semi-compliant, non-compliant), along with a detailed breakdown of these accessibility issues found throughout the audit (if any exist). You’ll be able to download these results in PDF form, as well.

How should you tackle ‌accessibility issues existing on your website?

You can address accessibility issues identified during the audit in a number of ways. For years, website owners’ only choice was to turn toward expert service providers who would manually remediate the problematic areas within their website, no matter how large or complex their site was. A manual process alone requires considerable time and resources. Today, however, there are automated solutions that can tackle many of the accessibility issues existing within your website in a fraction of the time and cost of the manual option.

accessWidget, for example, easily integrates with any CMS, performing an automated audit of your website’s code. Once accessibility issues are identified, accessWidget will then automatically remediate them. Additionally, accessWidget presents people with disabilities with an interface through which they can adjust UI and design elements on your website to fit their individual needs. Website visitors will be able to adjust color contrasts, increase font sizes, disable animations, and enact ‘read-only’, along with a number of other options.

Best practices to ensure your website is Section 508-compliant

Achieving Section 508 compliance is an ongoing process. While certain aspects of web accessibility may be familiar to you, it is a far more encompassing topic than one might expect. To that end, you can benefit from carrying out the following best practices:

Pay attention to other ICT products, and not just to your website

Section 508 applies to websites, but not only. Many other information and communication technology products and platforms need to be made accessible under the law. This includes media assets (like videos and podcasts), and online documents (such as PDFs). Identifying and then remediating accessibility issues existing within these assets can be challenging and time-consuming, especially when dealing with lengthy, complex files, videos, documents, and other media assets. Therefore, many website owners rely on expert service providers, such as accessServices, to help them with these projects. With an intimate knowledge of the sections of WCAG that apply to these assets, expert service providers are better equipped to handle these complicated tasks in a timely, and cost-efficient manner.

Stay informed and educated

Whether you leverage web accessibility tools or rely on expert service providers, it is always recommended that you understand what conforming with WCAG and achieving Section 508 compliance entails on a more in-depth level. To that end, you can check out the following pieces:

Consider turning to expert service providers to help you fill out your VPAT

As mentioned above, to comply fully with Section 508, you will need to fill out a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). The VPAT will detail your website and other ICT’s level of conformance to WCAG, and showcase your efforts to comply with the law.

Most organizations turn to expert service providers to fill out a VPAT for them. The process itself can prove tricky and lengthy, and most organizations lack the expertise to undertake such a project in-house. accessServices, for example, is relied on by hundreds of government agencies and federally-funded organizations looking to fill out a VPAT in a timely and cost-effective manner. You can read more about that by pressing here.

Consider implementing accessibility measures during the development stage

While many businesses have high-performing websites and want a solution that doesn’t affect the source code, there is also a development accessibility solution. accessFlow allows businesses to build their websites in an accessible and inclusive way using AI to produce copy-and-paste code for developers to implement. accessFlow integrates seamlessly into CI-CD pipelines, ensuring developers always ship accessible code from the basics to user action funnels.