The Ultimate Section 508 Guide for Students

In 1973, the United States government passed a sweeping piece of legislation known as the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act. Intended to aid those with disabilities, this legislation provides funding for

...vocational rehabilitation, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance (and) authorizes a variety of training and service discretionary grants administered by the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

As technology advanced, and both the workplace and society as a whole underwent significant changes, the need of those with disabilities also evolved. In order to foster equal access to the Internet and related technologies for all, the government added Section 508 to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act in 1998.

What is Section 508?

As amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-220), Section 508

...requires federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain and use electronic and information technology (EIT) that is accessible to people with disabilities - regardless of whether or not they work for the federal government.

In short, federal law requires government agencies to create and use electronic devices, and content developed to be used with them (e.g., websites, media files, etc.), that people with disabilities can readily access. This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Telephones, smart phones, and mobile devices
  • Tablet, laptop, and desktop computers
  • Televisions, DVD players, and videotaped productions
  • Internet and Intranet websites
  • Software and operating systems
  • Content on DVDs and Cds
  • Online training
  • Webinars and teleconferencing
  • Technical support call centers
  • Remote access websites and tools
  • User guides for software and tools
  • Copiers, printers, and fax machines
  • Calculators
  • Lab equipment

Requiring federal agencies to create accessible content and provide assistive technology for employees, guests, and others supports the government's stated goal of making its programs and service as inclusive as possible. All government content and devices that may be used or accessed by the public are required to comply as well.

Get a closer look at the ways government agencies implement Section 508:

Who Must Comply with Section 508?

At the federal level, all agencies must comply with Section 508 (provided said compliance doesn't overburden the agency's resources). Responsibility for compliance with the standards set forth in Section 508 is shared by multiple parties, including:

  • Content Creators and Authors: Folks who create content that may potentially be distributed through email, posted online, or shared through other electronic means (e.g., social media) are responsible for ensuring their content is accessible.
  • Supervisors: Management is responsible for explaining the importance of Section 508, and ensuring their staff receives adequate compliance training.
  • Web Managers: Website managers are responsible for ensuring their sites comply with Section 508 standards.
  • Project and Program Managers: Project and program managers must not only monitor compliance, but ensure they've left enough time for revisions in their timeline.
  • Contract Officers:All contracts must contain 508-compliant phrasing, and anyone submitting a contract should include 508-compliant deliverables.

In addition to federal government agencies, any state receiving federal grant money from the Assistive Technology Act State Grant program must also comply with Section 508. The Assistive Technology Act State Grant program operates at the state level, and is designed to support consumer-driven projects that provide or improve upon adaptive technology goods and services.

The government's vast purchasing power and lucrative contract system also make compliance an attractive prospect for outside vendors, whose proposals must meet the requirements for Section 508 on federal projects. The government actively encourages companies to create devices and services that comply with 508 in order to reach the largest number of citizens possible, both inside and outside the government.

Contractors interested in meeting 508 standards submit a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). This "informational tool" details precisely how the product or service does or does not comply with Section 508 requirements. Companies offering 508-compliant products and services must comply with best practices for VPAT preparation, and produce their documentation on demand. Therefore, many companies place their completed VPATs directly to the creator's website, so that both government agencies and consumers have access to the information as needed.

How Does Compliance Work?

The overarching goal of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act, and Section 508 in particular, is to provide equal access for all users of devices and content. Consequently, any product, content or service that wishes to comply must provide (according to sub-section 1194.31) "comparable access":

  • To users who are blind or have low vision, and/or be usable with assistive technologies for visual impairments
  • To users who are deaf or hard of hearing, and/or be usable with assistive technologies for hearing impairments
  • So users with motor disabilities can obtain and use your product
  • So users can utilize your product without relying on speech

Each type of content and device also has very specific rules governing the features necessary to bring it into compliance. For example, most multmedia content requires a text version of any visual or audio material, in order to make it accessible to those who may have vision or hearing difficulties.

Take a look at one tool developers can use to make their content Section 508 compliant:

Achieving ADA/Section 508 Compliance with Ext JS 4.2 from Sencha on Vimeo.

Why Does Compliance Matter?

The world is becoming an increasingly complex and connected place. As technology moves more and more commerce, entertainment, and communication online, people who have disabilities may be left behind. Accommodating the needs of the differently abled is part of a truly inclusive society.

And the need for such accommodation is both real and widespread. According to a 2012 study at Cornell University:

  • 6.4 million people in the Unite States have a visual disability.
  • 10.5 million people in Unite States have a hearing disability.
  • 20.9 million people in Unite States have a ambulatory disability.
  • 14.8 million people in Unite States have a cognitive disability.

Without Section 508, literally millions of people would be at a very severe disadvantage in accessing government information, taking advantage of government programs, or navigating websites, multimedia content, and documents.

Beyond the potential legal ramifications for federal agencies, or the potential profits for compliant contractors, adhering to Section 508 makes content accessible for everyone. For developers, artists, business owners, and anyone who creates and shares content, Section 508 compliance not only opens up web and multimedia content for potential customers with disabilities, but demonstrates an active commitment to diversity and equality in the Internet age.