What is Section 508 and why does it matter?
Note that Section 508 accessibility standards do not apply to private entities—that is the domain of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires accessible use of places of public accommodations for all individuals, and was amended in 2010 to include the Internet in addition to buildings, parks, and other public facilities.
However, if your company does business with the U.S. government as a contractor, or if you run an NGO or nonprofit organization that receives federal funding, then you should ensure that your computers, websites, intranets, and software have Section 508 compliance to ensure equal access by people with a range of disabilities and avoid potential legal issues.
What is Section 508?
The Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794d) was established in 1973 to codify affirmative action and nondiscrimination on the basis of disability by federal agencies, government contractors, and any programs receiving federal funding. In 1986, the U.S. Access Board acknowledged the growth of electronic communications and information technologies (ICT) by adding Section 508 to specifically address ICT accommodations. It has since been amended several times to remain current with technological advances.
Under Section 508 accessibility laws, all federal ICT and related equipment must be made accessible for everyone—regardless of whether or not they work for the government or related organizations. ICT refers to any equipment or system that is used to create, convert, duplicate, or access information and data.
Accessible information technology systems should not rely on a single sense or user ability. For instance, output must not be limited to only visual or audio format, which would exclude individuals with visual or hearing disabilities. Some people may require special accessibility software or peripheral devices to use systems that comply with Section 508.
Section 508 accessibility standards are based in part upon the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that govern the development of internet content and digital assets for equal access by people with disabilities on a global basis. Many state agencies and their contractors also follow these guidelines.
What problems Section 508 is intended to solve
Section 508 accessibility standards were established to resolve accessibility barriers for government employees and public citizens with a range of common disabilities who deserve equal access to information technology, equipment, and related services. Federal information that is dispensed electronically must be accessible in multiple ways, depending on the disability. Here are examples of various disabilities and some ways that websites and digital assets can be made accessible for Section 508 compliance:
Visual disabilities or impairment refers to a decreased ability to see that cannot be corrected by such means as glasses or medication. This spectrum can range from partially sighted or low vision to legally or totally blind, as well as color blindness. Visual impairments may be present at birth or develop at any age from disease, accidents, inherited conditions, or age-related degenerative issues.
Remediating Section 508 compliance violations for people with visual disabilities starts by ensuring compatibility with commonly used screen reader software that scans and translates all digital content and online navigation options on a web page or computer screen into synthesized speech, sounds, or braille displays. All links should be clearly named and images need to be simply and accurately labeled with alternative text descriptions that help anyone relying on a screen reader to understand what they cannot see for themselves.
Text, images, and navigation features such as buttons should either be large enough to view with low vision, or be enlargeable with a custom user-operated toolbar or screen magnifier. It is also important to optimize color contrast on-screen or in documents so the text is easily distinguishable from background graphics.
Hearing loss is the most common sensory disability—nearly 10,000,000 Americans are hard of hearing and almost one million are profoundly deaf. As with visual disabilities, hearing loss ranges on a spectrum from mild to complete, and has a variety of causes, including genetic, congenital, illness, trauma, and age-related hearing decline.
Section 508 accessibility standards require such remediations as including subtitles or captions (and optionally sign language for the relatively few who use it) on videos and multimedia content, and/or providing written transcripts. Allowing users to control audio/visual volume can also be helpful to individuals with certain hearing disabilities.
Mobility-related disabilities are conditions that temporarily or permanently hinder an individual from using their body independently and with purpose. Whether someone is dealing with a broken arm or carpal tunnel syndrome, has progressive arthritis, or is a paraplegic, each situation poses unique challenges when it comes to using a computer and navigating websites.
For instance, because using a mouse or touchpad may be impossible or very difficult for someone with limited dexterity, many people with mobility impairments depend on a keyboard for Internet use. In some cases, a standard keyboard suffices; other computer users require alternative keyboards, such as those with larger keys, single-handed operation, Bluetooth or voice-activated, or even specially designed keyboards for use by mouth-held devices, switches/buttons, or eye movement tracking software.
That’s why accessible websites need to address this wide variety of solutions that allow users with mobility disabilities to use their preferred assistive technology. Section 508 compliance might include such remediations as providing keyboard-based navigation options, designing larger response buttons, eliminating or lengthening timed screens, ensuring all features are compatible with mobility tech, and making reversals available for users who click on the wrong link.
Cognitive disorders and learning disabilities refer to a wide spectrum of conditions that influence the way people perceive, process, remember, comprehend, and utilize information. These can range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and autism to developmental/intellectual disabilities to age-related or early-onset dementia.
To be accessible for individuals with cognitive disabilities, websites and digital assets should be simply designed, easily understood, and clearly navigable without confusion or clutter. Following WCAG success criteria that govern Section 508 regulations, this includes:
- Presenting content in different ways without losing information or changing the organization—simplify layout with organized content and clear actions.
- Making visual and audio content distinguishable using high color contrast, adding captions and appropriate graphics, and other techniques.
- Giving website visitors enough time to read and use features.
- Helping users navigate and easily find content by avoiding too many choices, excessive information on one screen, and lengthy scrolling.
- Text should be readable and understandable, using simple words and short sentences.
- Ensuring that web pages operate in a consistent, predictable manner—provide clear, large, and easy button links, with obvious ways to identify where a user is on the site and retrace their steps.
- Input assistance can help users avoid and correct mistakes.
Epilepsy is a neurological seizure disorder affecting the nervous system. The cause of seizures is related to electrical disturbances in the brain, which are sometimes triggered by flashing or flickering lights in people with photosensitive epilepsy.
Avoiding strobe-like flashes and minimizing other flashing light effects is the best way to protect website, app, and game users who suffer from photosensitivity. To meet Section 508 accessibility standards, limit flashes to three or fewer and keep the area of activity to approximately 341 by 256 pixels or less.
Allyable’s 360° digital accessibility solution incorporates methods that suppress or slow down potential seizure triggers and keep content from exceeding flash thresholds.
Impact of Section 508
Since the U.S. government enacted Section 508, it has made a significant impact in many areas within and beyond the federal scope. Because Section 508 accessibility standards apply to contractors and vendors, as well as government agencies, they directly affect the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars in IT equipment and related costs each year.
By choosing to prioritize and normalize accessibility in its electronic communications and information technology, the Federal Government demonstrated that making communications, websites, ICT systems, and processes accessible is not a financial liability, but rather a profitable investment.
Thus, Section 508 has had a significant ripple effect for individual state regulations (many of which followed suit with similar WCAG-based standards), nonprofit organizations, and commercial enterprises that were inspired by the financial benefits resulting from the adoption of Section 508 accessibility laws.
Unless they are a government contractor, most private sector businesses are not required to maintain Section 508 compliance, but should adhere to Americans with Disability Act (ADA) guidelines, in order to avoid lawsuits and ensure equal access to all places of public accommodation, including their online and internet presence, for people with disabilities.
The mission of Allyable is to help public and private organizations provide digital accessibility for all.
Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act was developed to support people with disabilities within and served by the U.S. government. It establishes regulations and criteria for the accessibility of all information and communications technology (ICT) that is developed, maintained, procured, or used by the federal government. Section 508 compliance matters not only because it is the law, but also because it is the right thing to do for inclusivity and nondiscrimination.
Section 508 accessibility laws are important to ensure the inclusion of all employees and users of U.S. federal government information technology and related equipment. This includes members of the public with disabilities who access government agency resources, as well as any current or future employees of agencies, their vendors, and federally funded organizations who may have disabilities. Section 508 accessibility laws are intended to make ICT accessible so everybody can easily access information, regardless of their abilities.
All information and communications technology must adhere to Section 508 accessibility standards, such as: desktop, laptop, and tablet computers, peripherals, and other hardware equipment; software, operating systems, and user guides; internet, intranet, and remote websites; online training processes; documentation in text or PDF formats; emails and voicemail systems; and more. That means they must provide universal operational features and be compatible with accessibility software and peripheral devices such as screen readers that many people with disabilities depend on to navigate digital information.
Section 508 compliance applies to all federal agencies and their suppliers, government contractors, and all NGOs, nonprofits, and other organizations or programs that are the recipients of federal funding.
Digital accessibility can be a complex process, but Allyable’s revolutionary, 360° platform makes it fast, easy, and affordable with advanced software tools in a modular system for developers, agencies, consultants, and others. Contact Allyable today for more information and a demo of our simple, yet powerful solution for Section 508 accessibility compliance.