What is 508 compliance?

Drafted as a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 508 compliance was initially intended to address the workplace needs of disabled workers in the electronics and information technology fields. That measure was replaced in 1998 by the Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act, which requires that all electronic and IT products and services offered by federal agencies be accessible to people with disabilities. 

In January 2017, the information and communication technology (ICT) of Section 508 was updated by the US Access Board. The Rehabilitation Act states that every federal agency should be accessible to those with vision, auditory and/or cognitive disabilities. A "refresh" of Section 508 took effect in 2018 and sought to bring American standards more in line with international accessibility efforts such as the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Access Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0).

Who does Section 508 cover?

Section 508 regulations are intended to provide equal access to any user with a disability, including federal employees, online applicants for federal jobs, and private citizens requesting information, filling out forms, or otherwise visiting a federally affiliated web site.

While Section 508 is likely the most straightforward piece of federal accessibility legislation on the books in the United States, it is also quite limited in its scope. The rules apply only to federal websites and any website that is contracting with a federal agency or receiving federal funds for a project. 

508 Compliant Web

Websites operated by state or local governments or public sector organizations are generally not bound by the rules of Section 508. That said, many state and local websites opt to use federal standards as their guidelines, especially those that regularly interact with federal agencies. That not only expands their reach by making them accessible by people with disabilities, but it also keeps them ready for any updates in similar requirements in the future. 

The Rehabilitation Act covers all federal agencies, but it does not extend to the private sector or agencies that receive funds from the central government. However, many such websites are choosing to update their accessibility to ICT to become more inclusive in the future.

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What are the rules of how to be 508 Compliant?
What are the significant changes in the Revised 508 Standards?
What is the purpose of the Revised Section 508 Standards for websites?
How can you test for Section 508 Compliance for your website?

Section 508


What are the rules of how to be 508 Compliant?

The original scope of 508 Compliance sought to make all electronically available, federal information accessible to users with disabilities. In the terms set by the Rehabilitation Act, which means that federal organizations and websites must:

  1. Make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow an employee with a disability to perform the functions of a specific role
  2. Make whatever changes that are necessary to enable an applicant with a disability to apply for a job
  3. Ensure that all employees have access to equal benefits and privileges
  4. Provide essential software to employees to access information

What are the significant changes in the Revised 508 Standards?

As per the Revised 508 Standards, the significant changes in the regulations include –

  • Focus on functionality – the website content and information should be organized according to their functionality and not their product type. 
  • Industry alignment – the Revised 506 Standards incorporate the WCAG 2.0 as per the W3C. It lays down the ground rules of accessibility for all websites, software and electronic documents. 
  • Synchronized tech and tools – the adoption of assistive technology must include new software and operating systems as well. They should be inter-operable. 
  • Accessibility of content – all official agency business content and information from a few of the categories of non-public facing should remain accessible to everyone.
  • Expansion of the marketplace – the Revised 508 Standards aim to create a wider market via the incorporation of the reference of specific selected standards. It is also in harmony with the European Commission ICT Standards (EN 301 549). 

What is the purpose of the Revised Section 508 Standards for websites?

The 2018 Section 508 refresh requires most federal websites to meet or exceed the guidelines laid out for Level AA testing with WCAG 2.0, the standard followed by many governmental organizations around the world. We've covered WCAG 2.0 Level AA in greater detail in previous articles, but the main goal is to create content that meets four critical criteria:

  • Perceivable - All content, information, and interfaces on a website must be presented in a way that users can readily perceive, including users with vision, hearing, or cognitive disabilities
  • Operable - All navigation and interfaces on a website must be operable for users of all abilities, including those who rely on keyboard-only navigation or assistive technology
  • Understandable - All information, content, and design within a website should be presented in ways that are readable and understandable for users of all abilities
  • Robust - All content on a website should be both accessible to all users by current standards and adaptable to keep pace with future developments inaccessibility, such as improved assistive technology

The Section 508 refresh also focuses on addressing the function of products, not just the products themselves. Rules that once addressed, say, telephones and computers separately now cover all products that offer a similar role—all devices that can be used to browse the internet, for instance. It is particularly useful considering how much more prevalent multi-functional devices like smartphones and laptop computers have become since the previous update.

Other critical upgrades in the latest Section 508 refresh include clarification about the way federally employed technology interacts with assistive tools such as screen readers and a specific requirement that any web page that is available to the public or communicates official agency business must meet standards.

How can you test for Section 508 Compliance for your website?

As with most considerations, a combination of manual and automated testing is advisable to determine 508 compliance. An automated scan of your website can detect many issues that would take a significant amount of time and effort to identify by hand and can be scheduled to re-scan periodically to make sure that your site does not fall out of compliant as your content changes.

At the same time, many situations require manual accessibility testing to ensure that your solutions are workable for real people. These include issues such as compatibility with screen readers and other assistive tools, keyboard-only navigation, accessible coding, and more.

  • Any page that does not meet even one of the 38 WCAG criteria will not conform to the new 508 compliance. 
  • Any set of sequential pages that do not meet the criteria, fail to conform to the standards fully. 

Certain situations allow the websites to comply with the Revised 508 Standards by the alteration of the version of the content provided earlier for conformance testing.