There are millions of people with disabilities in the US, and it’s important to make sure that they receive equal opportunities. This includes providing them complete accessibility to online websites so that they can enjoy a comfortable and efficient browsing experience as other people do. To ensure that all federal government units in the US are in line with this goal, Section 508 was created.

Section 508 went through a series of changes before appearing as it does today. To give you a better understanding of this law, we will delve deeper into its background:

Key Takeaways

A Brief History of Section 508

It all started in the early 1970s when American lawmakers were increasingly becoming aware of how there was a lack of proper accommodation for citizens with disabilities. These lawmakers understood that there needed to be legislation to help enforce equal treatment for people with disabilities, which resulted in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

This Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was primarily concerned with the government and how it could support people with disabilities so that they can earn equal opportunities. Through this law, the government created federal responsibility for research and training programs to include people with disabilities, broadened the authorization of grants for state vocational rehabilitation programs and services, and tasked government agencies such as the Departments of Education, Welfare, and Health to build and develop programs to further assist individuals with disabilities. There was no part of the law that mentioned accessibility yet.

Through the course of time, the advancements and innovations of technology forced lawmakers to amend the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 1998, Section 508 was born, requiring any form of technology, as long as it’s being used by a federal agency or department, to be fully accessible to all people with disabilities. The law explicitly states that it applies both to technology used by government employees, as well as technology utilized by any third-party entity that interacts with the federal agencies.

In March 2017, Section 508’s accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) received a final update from the U.S. Access Board. The changes were aimed at providing a more specific definition of “accessibility,” while also indicating new requirements to meet accessibility standards as dictated by the 21st century’s ever-growing technology.

Major Changes in the 2017 Version

The 2017 update to Section 508 saw major changes applied to the law. First, the 2017 version solidified the requirement for all federal websites to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which was published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in the same year. Most government websites were required to meet at least Level AA compliance with the WCAG 2.0. By formally recognizing the WCAG as the accessibility framework that federal agencies should abide by, Section 508 built a clearer standard for future cases.

The 2017 update also provided a better definition of content accessibility. The revamped Section 508 states that all official agency content that’s concerned with the general public needs to be accessible in forms that can accommodate different disabilities. These disabilities include visual impairments, deafness, and other hearing difficulties, cognitive disabilities, as well as language and learning impairments.

Another added focus for Section 508 was synchronization. The latest addition to the law mandates that at the most basic level of technological design, all operating systems and programming software must be compatible with assistive technologies that people with disabilities may use to improve user experiences, such as customized keyboards and screen readers.

Finally, the new Section 508 wanted to build a larger market of accessibility solutions so that people with disabilities can have more options at improving accessibility. By incorporating international standards into US government policy, lawmakers are hoping to expand the marketplace and better provide accessibility solutions for its citizens.

Is there a Difference Between Section 508 and the ADA?

Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are both laws that aim to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. However, there are important differences between the two, and it’s essential to identify them to better understand each legislation.

The biggest difference between the two laws is that they cover a different set of entities. Section 508 provides regulations for federal entities, including any third-party persons or organizations that are transacting with the government, or at the very least, receiving government funding. The latter part is quite important, as it means that all government-backed institutions such as universities, public hospitals, museums, and national parks, as well as any programs being rolled out by organizations that are funded by the government, no matter how big or small, are required to comply with Section 508. This clause was further highlighted in 2015, when accessibility lawsuits were filed against Harvard University and MIT, prompting both academic institutions to redesign their websites as they reached for a settlement.

The accessibility rules defined under Section 508 also affects third party workers or contractors that are providing any kind of service for a federal body or government-funded organization. It’s important to remember this because a lot of businesses work with government agencies, with some even receiving federal grants, yet they do not understand that they also need to comply with Section 508.

On the other hand, the ADA has a larger scope when it comes to accessibility compliance. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in government agencies like Section 508, but it also covers private entities, including those classified as “public accommodations.” This includes businesses such as hotels, bars, restaurants, theaters, libraries, groceries, retail stores, and private parks, among others.

The ADA states that “no disabled person may be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services” of any business that is publicly accessible. To accommodate the law, many businesses needed to adjust their standard services to better suit people with disabilities. While the ADA was originally drafted with only physical services in mind, multiple court rulings through the years have cemented the case that the law also applies to websites and online pages just as much as it does to physical platforms. As such, businesses need to modify their websites as well to ensure that their content is fully accessible for people with disabilities unless they want to be the potential subject of an accessibility lawsuit.

A Final Word on Section 508 Compliance

While Section 508 did not originally include web accessibility in its regulations, the continuous growth of technology has significantly changed the landscape, forcing lawmakers to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the law stays relevant to today’s digital environment. The 2017 update to Section 508 provided clearer guidance on how federal websites (including websites of federally-funded bodies) can better adhere to its accessibility requirements, establishing the WCAG 2.0 as the primary standard for compliance.

If your organization is doing business with the government or an organization that receives federal funding, your website should also comply with Section 508. The standards set by the WCAG 2.0 can be challenging, but they aren’t impossible to meet. Access-A-Pal can help you improve your website to ensure that it follows the accessibility guidelines under Section 508, protecting your business and providing your customers with a better user experience. Contact Access-A-Pal now so we can help you enhance your website as soon as possible.