Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Access Board received a final report from an advisory committee focused on refreshing the accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Commonly referred to as “Section 508 Refresh,” the moment marked a milestone for process and innovation in accessibility for all.
Updating the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
In 1998 the U.S Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The amendment is known as Section 508.
Section 508 applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic information technology. EIT applies to various categories and products, including telephones, computers, kiosks, websites, applications, multimedia, office equipment and electronic documents.
At its core, the law requires agencies to ensure employees with disabilities and members of the public have equivalent access to content and systems as we enter a digital age.
Section 508 addresses legal compliance through incorporation with the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and technical compliance thanks to standards developed by the United States Access Board, also referred to as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. These standards were approved and enforceable as of 2001.
Writing these technical standards was a significant undertaking but critical to the success and impact of this law. It established an industry standard for vendors and agencies and, more importantly, impacted the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.
History of Section 508
Anyone that has recently purchased a cell phone can attest technology develops at an unbelievable pace. Within a few weeks of purchase something is already faster and more advanced is available on the market.
For perspective, in 2001, the smartphone was still in development. Today half the humans on the planet own a smartphone and the device has become a fundamental part of our daily lives.
When the Access Board published its technical standards, they were grouped into six broad product categories, each with unique requirements.
- Software applications and operating systems.
- Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications.
- Telecommunications products.
- Video and multimedia products.
- Self-contained, closed products.
- Desktop and portable computers.
This approach was taken to simplify determining what standards applied to a product being procured or developed. It was very effective early on, but the gaps quickly came into focus as technology evolved.
Which brings us back to the smartphone. What category would a smartphone fit into? The answer is — many. It’s a portable computer and includes an operating system and telecommunication capabilities.
Within a few years, many were already calling for a refresh of these standards to better align with the quickly evolving IT landscape.
In 2006, the refresh process was initiated by establishing an advisory committee named TEITAC – Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee. To reflect a balanced perspective, this committee comprised representatives from industry, disability groups, government agencies, foreign countries, and other stakeholders.
TEITAC was tasked with developing a report that would influence the Access Board’s responsibility to refresh Section 508 and its guidelines. The report’s focus included research on types of products, barriers for individuals with disabilities, solutions to these barriers, recommendations on harmonization with international standards, and content for the revised guidelines and standards.
The advisory committee’s report was delivered on April 3rd, 2008. Eight years later, after numerous drafts, revised drafts and periods of public comment, there was an approved final rule.
On January 9th, 2017, the Access Board released a final rule (PDF) that updates accessibility requirements covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, along with guidelines for telecommunications equipment subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934.
This joint release is intended to ensure that information and communications technology (ICT) covered by each statute is accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.
The revised standards and guidelines were published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017.
The original technical standards were organized by product type. However, this organization resulted in frustration and confusion as products evolved and new technology emerged that overlapped these categories. Consequently, a function-based approach was established to minimize confusion. Instead of basing requirements on “what it is,” the emphasis shifted to “what it does.” The change improves the ease and accuracy of defining requirements and safeguards the language as technology evolves.
Delayed Compliance Date
An earlier revision of the rule defined a six-month compliance requirement after publication in the FAR. However, this was extended to one year, so agencies and vendors were not required to comply until January 18, 2018.
Safe Harbor Provision
When the new Section 508 guidelines took effect, products that complied with the standards published in 2001 and did not include “substantive changes” were not required to meet the new standards. See specific language for this provision below:
E202.2 Legacy ICT – Any component or portion of existing ICT that complies with an earlier standard issued pursuant to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and that has not been altered on or after January 18, 2018 shall not be required to be modified to conform to the revised 508 standards.
The Access Board committed to providing extensive technical assistance to ensure the Safe Harbor Provision was understood and applied appropriately.
Functional Performance Criteria Modified
Functional Performance Criteria was an important sub-part in the original amendment and will always be relevant even as technology evolves. These criteria include provisions that address the accessibility needs of various disability groups, including people who are blind, low-vision, deaf, hard of hearing, without speech, and have mobility impairments.
Missing from the original list are users with cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia. A list of cognitive disabilities and modifications to the language was added to align with best practice applications and harmonized with standards like EN 301549 (PDF) – the European standard.
The update was only new to Section 508, as this was already addressed in Section 255.
WCAG and Section 508
Perhaps the most significant and anticipated revision was the incorporation of WCAG 2.0 by reference. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. They are guidelines that specify how to make content accessible, primarily for people with disabilities, but also for all user agents. WCAG 2.0 was published in December 2008, but there have been updated versions since.
WCAG includes 3 levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA. These levels correspond to a combination of how essential, how effective, and how achievable each is. The Section 508 revised language only incorporates Level A and Level AA success criteria.
Another important clarification is the application of WCAG. As the title suggests, these guidelines were written with “web” content in mind. However, many of these requirements can also be applied to non-web content like software and documents. This same approach is used internationally, the most prominent example being the European Standard.
This harmonization was an important step forward so that agencies and vendors could focus on one set of standard requirements.
A New IDEA
In their report on Section 508 (see below), the General Services Administration (GSA) pointed out federal actions that contributed to accessibility. Besides two executive orders, the report noted that, “The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) (2019) re-emphasized IT accessibility.” While IDEA focuses on the useability of federal websites as a whole and accessibility is specifically part of that. IDEA requires that “Public-facing websites and digital services should…be accessible to individuals with disabilities in accordance with Section 508.”
The Effect of Section 508 Compliance
GSA’s report is notable because there hasn’t been a report like it for a decade. Federal agencies have sent GSA data about their Section 508 compliance for years. In 2012, the Department of Justice and GSA gathered this into a report. Eleven years passed, and in 2023, they put out a new report that scores agencies in five categories: Acquisition, Agency EIT Lifecycle Activities, Testing & Validation, Complaints Process, and Training. To understand the report, it’s important to know the “scores” GSA measures agencies with:
- Ad Hoc: No formal policies, processes, or procedures defined.
- Planned: Policies, processes, and procedures defined and communicated.
- Resourced: Resources committed and/or staff trained to implement policies, processes, and procedures.
- Measured: Validation is performed; results are measured and tracked.
The scores were mixed, and the report lays this out clearly:
- Only 6 CFO Act agencies (25%) consider themselves “Measured” in three or more of the five categories.
- Only 2 CFO Act agencies (8%) consider themselves “Measured” in all five maturity categories.
- Agency maturity remains largely unchanged from prior reporting.
- 21 years have passed since the release of the standards and three agencies remain “Ad Hoc” within “one or more reporting categories.”
Internal audits by agencies on a sample of webpages found 90% conformance on webpages, but this number is less exciting than it first appears. Many agencies only run automated scans to test their pages and only stand a chance of catching under 30% of errors. PDFs were not encouraging, with only 20% of the sampled pages from across agencies found conformant. Yet, there has been a “14% overall maturity improvement of the past six (6) years.”
If your federal agency is struggling with accessibility, contact TPGi. We can help you improve your accessibility with tools from website scanning to individualized assistance so you can make plans, gather resources, and measure the effects of your efforts.
- July 6, 2006 – Access Board named TEITAC members
- April 3, 2008 – Advisory committee presented report
- February 23, 2014 – Proposed rule submitted to OMB
- September 14, 2016 – Access Board approved final rule
- January 9, 2017 – Final Rule published
- January 18, 2017 – ICT Requirements published in FAR
- March 20, 2017 – Final rule effective
- January 18, 2018 – Delayed compliance date
- December 20, 2018 – IDEA becomes law
- February 21, 2023 – Section 508 Report to the President and Congress: Accessibility of Federal Information and Communication Technology