No More Excuses – There is Now a U.S. Deadline for Becoming Accessible

The words "Section 508" coming out of a megaphone

At long last, two of the most looming accessibility questions in the United States have been answered:

  1. What is the deadline for becoming digitally accessible?
  2. What types of content must be accessible?

This week, the United States Access Board announced updates to national accessibility requirements beneath Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. While the refresh is limited to federal agencies and any business that sells to or receives funds from a federal agency, Section 508 will have long-lasting effects across all industries.

Until now, U.S. accessibility laws were not aligned with the worldwide Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). These guidelines, already recognized in most developed countries, address many disabilities pertaining to vision, color perception, cognition, manual dexterity, and more.

This week’s announcement may significantly alter companies’ timelines of becoming digitally accessible: American agencies and companies that are affected will have until January 2018 to become compliant.

In other words, “There isn’t a deadline yet” is no longer an excuse to procrastinate. What does this mean for you?

Mark Your Calendars for January 2018

Up until now, U.S. companies may or may not have had accessibility on their radar. Some may have hesitated to tackle digital accessibility, because there was no hard and fast deadline while the Access Board reorganized and updated the guidelines.

Once these rules are published in the National Register later this month, federal agencies and businesses that sell to or receive funds from federal agencies have 12 months to become compliant. The Department of Justice and Department of Education will continue to enforce accessibility compliance by investigating formal complaints made through their respective Offices for Civil Rights.

We suggest marking Jan. 1, 2018 as your ultimate deadline and getting to work immediately on creating a plan or setting new interim deadlines.

What Content Needs to be Accessible?

Section 508 standards apply to computer hardware and software, websites, and multimedia. Each of these must comply with WCAG 2.0 criteria levels of A and AA, which entail the most critical elements to making the user experience accessible.

Website content including text, images, video, forms, animations, and more must be easily accessible to those with disabilities by incorporating header tags, alt attributes, and other elements. Creating new content with accessibility in mind or retrofitting existing content may seem overwhelming, but it is entirely doable. Utilizing a web accessibility checklist can help break down some of the necessary first steps to assessing your accessibility.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the Section 508 refresh, other global accessibility standards, and how you can incorporate them into your 2017 plans. If you’d like to be notified by email, subscribe to the Siteimprove Blog.


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10 COMMENTS

  • Question: Is the 1/18/2018 deadline applicable to businesses that do not sell to or receive funds from a federal agency? My reading of the above, and the information on the US Access Board website indicates that the answer is “no”. Is this technically correct? Is it being interpolated to also be applicable to other businesses, or at least a “best practices” guideline?

    Comment by Mike Higbee
    • Hi Mike, technically that is correct. NO, there is no deadline right now for organizations outside of federal agencies and those that do business with/receive funding from federal agencies. This change is really the final step in aligning the standards for enforcement. There has been legal activity for quite a while now, and this confirms the target for compliance. We feel that a deadline for other organizations could potentially follow suit after the January 18, 2018 deadline, which is why we urge all organizations to comply as soon as possible. Thank you for your question – feel free to sign up for our Section 508 webinar or email us for more information!

      You can sign up for the webinar here: http://go.siteimprove.com/section-508-refresh-webinar.

      Comment by Rachel Trampel
      • Can you further clarify. My understanding based on other reading is that the refresh and compliance deadline ONLY applies to Federal agencies and does NOT apply to businesses that do business with and/or receive funds from the federal government.

        (Resource: http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e627e1be-eddf-44cb-9459-c8f72de48334)

        Comment by Penny Lasater
        • Hi Penny,

          We’re happy to clarify! In addition to federal agencies, the new regulations apply to Information and Communication Technology providers that work with federal agencies. (Computer hardware and software, website development and management, phone systems, etc.) The U.S. Access Board has some great info on it here: https://www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/communications-and-it/about-the-ict-refresh. For now, this legislation does not directly apply to all businesses that work with federal agencies, but it certainly sets a baseline for future expectations.

          As for organizations that receive funding, this is a bit of a gray area. (It’s frustrating, we agree!) However, when we listened to the U.S. Access Board webinar on the Section 508 Refresh last week, they stated that organizations receiving funding should check with those agencies from which they receive funding to gather more specifics on what they are requiring. It is a complicated web this regulation has weaved.

          Thank you!
          Lisa

          Comment by Lisa Marchand
  • What is the penalty for non-compliance?

    Comment by Jeffrey Acklie
    • Hi Jeffrey,

      Great question. Some situations have turned into multi-million-dollar lawsuits, and in those cases, the organizations still needed to make their websites accessible after the settlement. In many cases, organizations receive an official complaint letter from individuals, non-profits, or various government entities (most often the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.) To clarify, these complaint letters are not lawsuits—but if accessibility requirements are not met in an appropriate timeframe, it could lead to a lawsuit enforced by the Department of Justice. Now that there is an official deadline underneath Section 508, there is much better ground to stand on for individuals or groups filing lawsuits.

      Overall, compliance is cheaper than a lawsuit, so being proactive is key. If you’d like to learn more about Section 508, we’re hosting a webinar on Feb. 7 and we’d love to see you there: http://go.siteimprove.com/section-508-refresh-webinar

      Thank you!

      Comment by Lisa Marchand
  • I’m still confused about how this new timeline affects the complaints filed against school districts through the Office of Civil Rights. My understanding is that these school districts have reached an agreement to fix the accessibility issues with their website and have been given specific deadlines for compliance. Does this new deadline mean that school districts now have until January 18, 2018, to comply? Are school districts still subject to complaints? If yes, is the new deadline for compliance automatically set to January 18, 2018?

    Thanks!

    Comment by Bob Charpentier
    • Hi Bob,

      Those are great questions! You are exactly right—those schools have reached an agreement to become accessible over time by an approved date with OCR, and the new legislation should not alter their timelines as long as they are working towards accessibility.

      This new deadline is setting the baseline for compliance expectations. There are two parts to this: 1) If a district receives federal funding, they need to check with the agencies from which they receive funding to get on the same page about accessibility expectations. (Unfortunately, organizations that receive funding fall into a bit of a gray area.) 2) For schools that have NOT received an OCR complaint letter, it’s only a matter of time before accessibility needs to be addressed. Now that Section 508 has a “deadline” in place, the Department of Justice and Department of Education’s respective Offices for Civil Rights will have firmer ground to stand on. (Not to mention any independent people or organizations who complain or sue.)

      I hope this helps!
      Lisa

      Comment by Lisa Marchand
  • How far will we be expected to comply with this legislation and what would they be looking for?
    For example would category ‘A’ compliance be satisfactory, or would this depend on the type of website?

    Comment by Steve Norris
    • Hi Steve,

      For now, it depends on if you fall into the categories of federal agency, Information and Communication Technology provider, or organization that receives federal funding. (This last one is a gray area.) Full compliance is expected, but the truth of the matter is that achieving 100% accessibility is impossible with how fast technology changes. However, it’s a matter of always striving for accessibility! Section 508 is in line with WCAG 2.0, web standards that are accepted globally. This is a great overview of those standards: https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/glance/.

      Section 508 calls for AA compliance. Stay tuned for a browser extension later this month that can identify WCAG issues on any web page!

      Thanks!

      Comment by Lisa Marchand

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by Lisa Marchand
January 13th
2017

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