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Section 508 addresses people with disabilities and their access to and use of information and data related to electronic and information technology. Here's what you need to know.

Those of us who were alive in 1973 may have been watching the premier of American Graffiti or pulling on a pair of groovy bell bottoms, but President Richard Nixon was busy signing The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This enduring Act requires that people with disabilities be able to access programs and activities that are funded by federal agencies and federal employment.

There have been several amendments to the Act since you put on those bell bottoms, including the Section 508 amendment, which was added in 1986 (by which time you were tuning in to the very first episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show and had traded in the bell bottoms for a Members Only jacket). Section 508 was amended again in 1998.

So, what is this Section 508 amendment, and more importantly what does is mean to business today when the bell bottoms and Members Only jackets have been replaced by… well… an avatar? Believe it or not, it has only grown in significance. And, as long as electronic and information technology continues to grow, so will the significance of Section 508. With the proliferation of the web and its impact on business today, it is more important than ever to understand. To keep things simple, this is where we’ll focus our look at 508 – the World Wide Web.

Simply put, Section 508 addresses people with disabilities and their access to and use of information and data related to electronic and information technology. Some key points:

  • It applies to individuals with disabilities who are:
    • federal employees
    • members of the public seeking information or services from a federal department or agency
  • It requires that access to information and data by individuals with disabilities be comparable to those without disabilities unless undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency.

In terms of websites, this means that federal government websites must be accessible to people with disabilities. In reality, this extends to all sorts of “browser-based” experiences and, of course, beyond the web to all things electronic and information technology related.

What Does Section 508 Mean to My Organization?

How does this affect your organization? Well, if you’re a federal agency, I think you probably already get it. But, what if you’re a private company? It doesn’t affect you, right…? Great! You can stop reading now and go back to surfing the web!

Nope!

Not until you ask yourself two things:

  1. Do I want to do business with the federal government?
  2. Does anyone I do business with do business with the federal government?

If you have a product or service that falls into the electronic and information technology bucket and you want to sell those products or services to the U.S. federal government or to a vendor that sells to the government, understanding and following 508 is imperative for you.

Now that you know why it’s important, let’s look at what you need. We can break it out into two simple things:

  1. Make your website or product accessible
  2. Demonstrate that in an accessibility report in the format of a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT)

Accessibility Guidelines and Section 508

Good news – there are guidelines for accessibility. Section 508 is very clear on what guidelines you should follow. This can, however, get a bit tricky given some changes that have happened along the way, but I’m going to make it easy for you – Section 508 maps to the WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA guidelines.

Up until January of 2017 (we’re not going to get into what you were doing 2017 – you were probably still wearing those pants), Section 508 and the WCAG 2.0 guidelines were separate. Now Section 508 maps directly to WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA as the guidelines to follow to meet the requirements. Moreover, following the January 2017 refresh, the VPAT format was amended later that year to accept the WCAG 2.0 and now also WCAG 2.1 Guidelines, so it remains the method by which to demonstrate level of conformance.

Getting that VPAT You’ve Always Wanted

If you’re that person who can’t wait to do their own taxes every year, then you may want to tackle your own VPAT. However, even then, you’re likely to become pretty frustrated because it takes substantial knowledge to just properly fill out the VPAT, nevermind evaluate your website for conformance to the guidelines.

This is where a third-party expert comes in. An expert can evaluate your site, tell you where you don’t meet the guidelines and what to do about it. Then, once you’ve addressed the issues, tell you how you did. It will look something like this:

  • Perform a Manual Review of a representative sample of the site
  • Report the findings and give advice on remediating the issues
  • Support you through the remediation by answering questions and providing clarification to the advice
  • Review the site to verify the issues have been properly addressed
  • Draft an accessibility report in the VPAT format

Assuming everything has gone well, right after that second review (when everything has been verified) is the magic moment in time when your website will substantially conform to the guidelines. The trick from here is to maintain that the best you can. Again, a good third-party expert can help create a strategy that works for you.

Beyond the VPAT

What we have covered here, from the inception of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, through the integrations of the Section 508 amendment, to the adoption of the WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA guidelines, and, finally, obtaining a VPAT are the base fundamentals you should understand. There is, however, a lot more to think about when it comes to accessibility, Section 508, and what your organization should consider to manage accessibility efficiently over time. Some of the key things to look into are:

  • Supplemental and ongoing accessibility education
  • Consistent access to third-party support
  • Ongoing monitoring
  • Regular Manual Reviews
  • Regularly refreshing your VPAT

The exact strategy your organization adopts will be unique to your needs and the way your organization operates will likely morph over time. It’s okay to think about all these things, but don’t get too wrapped up in the details. Start at the beginning and have your site or product assessed, then work with your team and the experts to build the best strategy from there. Before you know it, you will be meeting the requirements and operating in the federal space like the expert you are.


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About the Author

Mark Miller

Mark Miller works for Interactive Accessibility, a firm that helps organizations of all types across numerous verticals with strategic approaches to making their products and websites usable by all people. Drawing from over twenty years of experience in technology, marketing, business development, and years of experience as an IT director and technical consultant, Mark works with Interactive Accessibility’s clients to help them understand the various processes, products and services to consider for conducting a successful accessibility program. He also co-hosts the Interactive Accessibility/TPG Podcast, bringing accessibility to the masses.

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