In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was passed with the goal of ending discrimination by any federal program or agency against people with disabilities. In the decades since its passage, the Act has been amended on several occasions. Notably, in 1998, Congress amended the Act by adding Section 508.
Section 508 is one law, among others, that requires all federal agencies to make electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities, whether they are employees of the federal government or members of the general public. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use EIT.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) standards mandated by Section 508 are developed by the U.S. Access Board. The Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards.
In 2018, the Access Board issued a final rule for the standards covered by Section 508. The Access Board standards are extensive and require that all electronic content, hardware, and software be accessible. Among the requirements for accessibility are compatibility with closed captioning, allowing for alternative methods of interacting with the content, and adjustable font settings for easier reading.
Considering the massive amount of information made available by the federal government and the degree to which citizens must interact with the government, ensuring compliance is of great importance. Fortunately testing for compliance with Section 508 is relatively defined.
The Section 508 website provides a thorough section explaining the testing process. For example, when it comes to testing electronic content for compliance, there are three methods to consider.
- Automated testing can quickly scan many electronic documents for compliance. The benefit to this is saved time. However, the speed of automated testing can lead to sacrifices in accuracy.
- Manual testing for compliance will lead to more accurate results, but it is more tedious and time consuming.
- The Section 508 website recommends a method of hybrid testing that includes both automated and manual screening. Automated programs can process the documents quickly while specific manual tests can look for common errors. Each agency should consider the risks and benefits of each method before proceeding.
In addition to discussing the various testing methods, the Section 508 website provides many resources for learning about electronic accessibility. Users can find links to information from the World Wide Web Consortium, tests from different government agencies, and general information about how people with disabilities use the Internet. The website also includes links to information about how to manage different types of documents, as well as video and social media.
Government resources aren’t the only place to look for information about Section 508 compliance. Many private companies offer compliance training, educational seminars, and screening programs. Whether managing a website for the federal government or creating software with the hopes of obtaining a government contract, it is important to find reputable companies that test for Section 508 compliance. Failure to follow the guidelines can result in fines for the agency, not to mention the harm that could be caused to an individual who is not able to access vital information.
Being able to access electronic information is a vital part of the lives of American citizens. Many government services are online. If information isn’t accessible it creates a significant burden to an individual with a disability. Section 508 ensures that citizens will be able to access what they need, when they need it. As the digital world continues to grow, it will be necessary to make changes to compliance laws in order to make information accessible to everyone.