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Section 508 compliance: what you need to know

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 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. 

What is Section 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).

What are the Section 508 Compliance standards?

The original scope of Section 508 sought to make all federal information that is available electronically 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 web 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. 

What technology has to be compliant?

In principle, all information and communications technology (ICT) has to comply with Section 508 standards. This includes:

  • Communication devices (e.g. smartphones)
  • Computing devices (e.g. laptops and tablets)
  • Websites (including Intranet sites and remote access sites)
  • Media devices (e.g. TVs and video players)
  • Information storage devices (e.g. CDs and DVDs)
  • Devices that duplicate physical documents (e.g. printers and copiers)
  • Recorded presentations (e.g. webinars and online training)
  • Digital documents (e.g. user guides or PDFs)
  • Software and Operating Systems

Who must be compliant with Section 508?

Section 508 applies to all US federal agencies, as well as any government or non-government entities dealing with them. 

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.

If your organization meets this requirement, it’s essential to make sure that all your digital communications, content, and technology are Section 508-compliant from the start.

What are the risks of having a website that does not comply with Section 508?

The most immediate legal consequence is that you can lose your federal contract outright – but the damage can extend far beyond losing business.

Your organization also risks opening itself up to reputation-damaging and expensive lawsuits from individuals who can’t access or understand your digital content.

Finally, by not following the accessibility standards set out in Section 508, you’re failing to serve an entire segment of the market. That decision can directly hurt your business if people with disabilities make up a significant portion of your customers – and with 26% of Americans living with some type of disability today, that can really impact your bottom line.

It’s clear that making sure that your websites are accessible to everyone is both the ethical thing to do and a smart business decision.

Differences between ADA compliance and Section 508 compliance

Unlike Section 508, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to a broader segment of society, with its application reaching beyond federal agencies and their business partners.

More specifically, the ADA requires local and state governments, businesses, and non-profits to ensure equal access for people with disabilities. At the same time, ADA does not directly apply to the federal government, which is where Section 508 comes into play.

Taken together, the ADA and Section 508 cover the full range of businesses and entities represented across all government levels.

Differences between Section 504 and Section 508 

On the surface, Sections 508 and 504 can appear very similar. Both sections apply to the federal government and those affiliated with it. Similarly, they both deal with ensuring comparable access to individuals with disabilities.

Yet, there are two notable differences.

  1. Section 504 has a broader application. It covers any organization that receives federal financial benefits. So, even if you are not working directly with a federal agency, but are benefitting financially from one, for example, by being the recipient of a federal grant, Section 504 applies to you. This includes organizations like universities, non-profits, and small businesses receiving federal loans.
  2. Section 504 extends beyond information and communication technology. It states that agencies must ensure equal participation by providing the necessary “auxiliary aids” to people with disabilities. These aids may take the form of braille versions of printed materials, telecommunications devices for deaf persons, and specially trained interpreters.

It’s possible to find yourself in a situation where your organization is compliant with Section 508 but fails to satisfy the requirements of Section 504. For example, your higher education website might comply fully with Section 508, but if a student is unable to follow the curriculum due to a lack of special aids, you would be in breach of Section 504.

Differences between Section 255 and Section 508 

Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act focuses exclusively on telecommunications equipment and software, such as telephones, routers, and modems. Providers of such equipment must make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities.

This means that while Section 255 may overlap with Section 508 when it comes to the use of physical devices, it says nothing about websites and digital content.

Section 255 is somewhat more lenient than Section 508. Under Section 255, your products may be compliant even if they’re not immediately usable by a person with disabilities. It’s considered enough if a product is compatible with specialized equipment that enables people with disabilities to successfully operate it.

At the same time, Section 255 applies to all companies, even if they’re not in any way associated with the federal government.

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.

How to test for Section 508 compliance

Now that you know the purpose of Section 508 and the risks of non-compliance, let’s look at the options you have for testing your website’s level of compliance.

As a baseline, all public-facing content must comply with Section 508 standards. This includes:

  • Website content like text, images, buttons and links
  • Software and apps
  • Digital files such as:
    • Documents (e.g. Microsoft Word)
    • Presentations (e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint)
    • Spreadsheets (e.g. Microsoft Excel)
    • PDFs

You should test all such content to ensure it complies with Section 508. 

Can PDFs be 508 compliant? 

Yes. In fact, PDFs must comply with Section 508.

To make sure your PDFs are compliant, focus on:

  • Document properties: Fill in the title, author, subject, and any additional information.
  • Structure and style: Use a consistent heading hierarchy.
  • Meta information: Provide descriptive alt text for images, clear descriptions for forms, and labels for tables or lists.
  • Alternative versions: Where possible, provide alternative ways to access information, such as HTML.

For detailed instructions, please consult this series of training videos from AED CoP.

Section 508 compliance testing: automated, manual, or hybrid?

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 rescan 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.

There are three ways to test your content for compliance: automated, manual, and a hybrid approach. Each comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks.

Automated testing

This method uses automated scanning tools to test for 508 compliance at scale.

Automated tests have several clear benefits. Accessibility testing software scans and assesses high volumes of content much faster than any human ever could. It can automatically generate reports and insights into your website’s accessibility errors, thereby alerting employees to potential compliance issues before they’re detected by users. Automated scanning tools take the heavy lifting out of a resource-heavy task, and they are also immune to fatigue and other sources of human error. Finally, you can often customize and program the software to meet your organization’s unique requirements.

However, automated testing also has some disadvantages. For instance, automated testing software isn’t as adept at determining context as a human is. So, while an automated tool can see if there is alt text associated with an image, it can’t tell whether the alt text is an accurate and sufficient description of that image. For similar reasons, automated tools can’t reliably test your website for compatibility with assistive technology like screen readers. Another drawback of automated tools is that they can’t always access protected content, such as pages hidden behind passwords or firewalls. This type of secure content will almost always require a human tester.

Depending on your organization, you may need to use multiple specialized scanning tools to test different types of content, like websites and PDFs. This can turn automated testing into a complex project that requires technical know-how to set up, program, and execute successfully.

 Based on these considerations, automated testing is best for efficiently checking highly programmable “yes”/”no” rules for Section 508 compliance.

Manual testing

This method relies on people – generally specialists – manually reviewing digital content for accessibility issues.

Human testing is a great way of complementing automated tools in areas where they’re lacking. A person will be able to more accurately determine the context and make better judgment calls about whether content is compliant. Humans can also access protected areas of a site and reliably test for compatibility with assistive technology and tools.

Human testing can also involve real users with disabilities, who are well-suited for evaluating whether your content is actually accessible. This is called “user testing,” and we’ve covered it in more detail in our blog, “Everything you need to know about manual, automated, and hybrid accessibility testing.”

Human testing is far slower at processing high volumes of content. People are also much more prone to making mistakes due to fatigue, inexperience, or other human error, whereas machines can effortlessly follow pre-programmed rules. With modern websites running into the thousands, or even tens of thousands of pages, manual testing is most suited to reviewing a limited amount of intricate content that requires a fuller understanding of its context.

Hybrid testing

In practice, most organizations will use a hybrid approach to test for Section 508 compliance. This approach relies on a mix of manual and automated testing.

The main advantage of the hybrid approach is that it combines the individual strengths of automated and manual methods. For instance, you can run automated scans to flag issues for further manual review. This frees up employee time for performing in-depth, context-sensitive accessibility tests.

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