What is Section 508 Compliance?

Last updated: 3/13/2019

What is 508 compliance?
Who does Section 508 cover?
What does the directive require?
What are the rules of Section 508 Compliance standards?
How can you test for Section 508 compliance? What does Section 508 not cover?

Website accessibility is a many-layered, complex topic no matter where you are, but few accessibility landscapes are more challenging than that of the United States. With no national legislation focused exclusively on online accessibility and an overall trend toward deregulation, equal website access for Americans with disabilities can be a confusing field. Most conversations come back to two pieces of legislation: the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.Section 508 Compliance

What is 508 compliance?

Drafted as a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 was originally 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. 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. 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 interact regularly with federal agencies.

What are the rules of Section 508 compliance standards?

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

  • Make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow an employee with a disability to perform the functions of a specific role
  • Make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow an applicant with a disability to apply for a job
  • Ensure that all employees have access to equal benefits and privileges
  • Provide necessary software to employees to access information

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

  • Perceivable - All content, information, and interfaces on a website must be presented in a way that users can easily 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 in accessibility, 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 function—all devices that can be used to browse the internet, for instance. This is particularly useful considering how much more prevalent multi-functional devices like smartphones and laptop computers have become since the previous update.

Other key 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 accessibility standards.

How can you test for Section 508 compliance?

As with most accessibility considerations, a combination of manual and automated testing is advisable to determine Section 508 compliance. An automated scan of your website can detect many accessibility issues that would take a large 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 compliance as your content changes.

At the same time, there are a number of situations that 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.

If you’re interested in learning more, Section508.gov offers a number of useful guides and tips on how to test your website for Section 508 compliance.

What does Section 508 not cover?

Even after the 2018 Section 508 refresh, there are some notable exceptions to these accessibility requirements. Section 508 requirements can be overruled if there is a concern of national security, if accessibility would require the fundamental alteration of a product’s function, in the case of specific maintenance issues, or in individual access-request cases. There has also been some confusion over the years because Section 508 differentiates between legal and technical compliance. This means that a website can be legally compliant even in an area where it is not technically compliant—for instance, a functionally inaccessible web page might be deemed legally compliant if it is decided that the available technology is not sufficient to bring it up to compliance.

The bottom line on Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is that, even though it’s a complex piece of legislation with limited scope, it’s also one of the most visible of the few online accessibility regulations currently in effect in the United States. While Section 508 covers only federal and federal-affiliated websites, it also provides a model for other public and governmental sites and brings the U.S. closer to the international standards established by WCAG 2.0. Getting familiar with its ins and outs is a good idea for any accessibility-minded organization.