What is 508 compliance?

Drafted as a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 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 compliance 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 is 508 compliance?
Who does Section 508 cover?
What are the significant changes in the Revised 508 Standards?
What is the purpose of the Revised Section 508 Standards for websites?
What are the rules of Section 508 standards?
How can you test website for Section 508 accessibility?
How can you benefit from the transition to the Revised 508 Standards?
What does Section 508 Compliance not cover?
How do the Revised Section 508 Standards, ADA, and WCAG differ from one another?
Section 508 Standards: compliance vs. conformance

Section 508


What are the rules of Section 508 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, 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 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (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 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 critical criteria for accessibility:

  • 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 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 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 accessibility standards.

How can you test for Section 508 accessibility?

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 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 compliance 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 standards. 
  • 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. If you're interested in learning more, Section508.gov offers several useful guides and tips on how to test your website for Section 508 accessibility.

How can you benefit from the transition to the Revised 508 Standards?

It is the perfect opportunity for every agency, both federal and private, to revisit their structures. Website accessibility will soon become a global concern, and many law firms are already using the lack of inclusiveness of websites to sue businesses like Target. 

The policies of your agency should be similar, if not identical, to the policies of each section of the Rehabilitation Act. As per your agency's accessibility policy, it should be clarified that –

  • You are obliged to adopt website accessibility options for making ICT accessible for specially-abled people. 
  • Your agency is accommodating the needs of all employees and participants of the program by meeting the new 508 standards. 

The adoption of the Revised 508 Standards in place of the old 508 Standards gives every organization and business the chance to revise their existing Section 508, 504, and 501 policies.

What does Section 508 Compliance 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 individual access-request cases. 

There has also been some confusion over the years because Section 508 differentiates between legal and technical. That 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 lawfully 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 US 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.

How do the Revised Section 508 Standards, ADA, and WCAG differ from one another?

In apparent view, Section 508 Standards, ADA and WCAG have the same goal – to improve the accessibility of websites and the information they contain to people with disabilities. Disabilities can include color blindness, auditory problems, or complete blindness. 

Under all three standards, there are three criteria for compliance –

  • Technical requirement – the entirety of the website's codes, software, and OS should be compatible with the adopted assistive technology.
  • Functional requirement – people with disability should be able to access and use the entire system.
  • Support requirement – people with disabilities should be able to access all the support documents and alternative data on the site.

Section 508 Standards apply to federal agencies, websites, and their employees, along with the members of the general public with disabilities. The standard extends to everyone with a disability willing to access the information on any government website or multimedia. 

The ADA requires specific changes or updates to the state and local government sites, business sites, and non-profit service websites that allow specially-abled people to access the information and online facilities like the other US citizens. For example, it applies to ticket booking sites for movie theaters, digital media libraries, and ICT. 

WCAG is a set of guidelines by the W3C that tells the website owners how to create accessible website content. Although WCAG is very similar to Section 508 Standards, it represents distinct and somewhat higher levels of website accessibility as compared to the Revised Section 508 Standards. Till date, it is quite understandable that WCAG exclusively focuses on HTML accessibility of websites. 

Upon comparison, it becomes clear that Section 508 Standards are more stringent than the WCAG and ADA. However, the scope of Section 508 is quite different from the other two. It is limited to government agencies, public higher educational (K-12) institutions, and some of the federally funded non-profit organizations only. 

Section 508 Standards: compliance vs. conformance

One of the first questions many website owners have in mind is, "Are compliance and conformance different from each other?" The words "conformance" and "compliance" are used extensively in the fields of IT with reference to new IT laws and regulations. 

In the field of IT, accessibility, "conformance" and "compliance" are two distinct words with different connotations. For example – 

  1. All federal agencies in the US need to comply with Section 508 standards.
  2. Their IT products and services must conform to the Revised Section 508 Standards. 

According to the Revised 508 Standards, all ITC products and services, including the computer software and hardware, telecommunication services, multimedia, and video should conform to the standards.