What is Section 508?
Originally created in 1986, Section 508 requires that federal agencies in the United States make information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. This includes online training, technology, and websites that people will need to access to perform their jobs.
In 2018, Section 508 was updated to align its accessibility standards with global guidelines and standards, specifically the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).
Who is Covered in Section 508?
These guidelines include all federal employees with disabilities. It states that they should be able to perform their jobs comfortably on phones, office equipment, and computers that are accessible. They must also be able to take online training programs and access agency websites.
The guidelines also include people who may not be employed by the respective federal agency, but could be interacting with the agency for various reasons. These could include people who are applying for jobs, using the website to get more details, or submitting details through a form.
In terms of scope, Section 508 tends to be quite limited. It requires only the websites of federal agencies and entities that work with such agencies to adhere to accessibility guidelines.
What are the Guidelines in Section 508?
While Section 508 does not list out specific guidelines for website accessibility, it points to the following guiding principles in WCAG 2.0:
The information on a web page, as well as the user interface components, must be presented to users in a way that they can perceive it through their senses of sight, sound, and touch.
The ‘operable’ principle of WCAG 2.0 specifies that users must be able to easily interact with user interface components.
Website content must be easy for everyone to understand, irrespective of the disabilities they have.
When people with disabilities use assistive technologies, they often encounter blocks that prevent them from comfortably engaging with the content on the site. The ‘robust’ WCAG 2.0 principle specifies that the website content must be robust, thereby lending itself for easy interpretation by a wide range of assistive technologies.
Section 508 Lawsuits
In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security was sued for Section 508 violations. The lawsuit was filed by Michael Leiterman, a blind employee who had worked at Customs and Border Protection, which is a division of the United States Department of Homeland Security. The lawsuit contains details on multiple violations of Section 508, including intranets, training modules, and documents that were inaccessible.
Section 508 violations have been raised against government agencies as well. In 2009, Virgil Stinnett, a blind business owner, and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed an administrative complaint against the Small Business Administration (SBA), saying that the website of the agency was inaccessible to people with visual impairments who use assistive technologies.
Another example of a Section 508-based complaint is that of the one Carlos Mora along with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed against the US Department of Education. The complaint was regarding U.S.A Learns, a website which was said to be inaccessible to users with blindness.
In 2009, another lawsuit was filed by the NFB along with Margot Downey, a blind beneficiary of the social security system. The lawsuit claimed that the website of the Social Security Administration (SSA) was inaccessible.
The Benefits of Section 508 for Web Accessibility
While Section 508 only includes federal agencies and entities that are associated with such agencies, it is one of the most widely known accessibility regulations in America. By pointing federal agencies to WCAG 2.0, it offers a model that can be emulated by business entities in the United States.
The recent updates to Section 508, which focus on functionality and support through WCAG 2.0 AA, bring attention to web accessibility not just for federal agencies, but for private businesses as well. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act set a clear path for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA then became a ground-breaking model of compliance for private enterprises. Similarly, Section 508 has the potential to become a compliance model for private businesses.
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