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Intro to Section 508 and Accessibility

If you work for the federal government and have a role in developing documents, software, websites, and/or procuring, purchasing or maintaining hardware, you have a responsibility to meet Section 508 standards. Even if you’re not a federal employee, it’s always a good idea to be 508 compliant as it will make it easier for all your customers and employees to find content and work more easily. In this post, my goal is for you to understand what Section 508 is, why it’s important, and how to become compliant.

Section 508 and Accessibility

What is Section 508?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that Federal agencies’ meet standards during —”development, procurement, maintenance, and use” of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The law specifies that ICT should be made accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.

Scales of Justice

ICT includes information technology and other equipment, systems, technologies, or processes, for which the “principal function is the creation, manipulation, storage, display, receipt, or transmission of electronic data and information, as well as any associated content”.

Examples of ICT include:

  • Software, applications, and websites
  • Documents – PDF, Word, Excel, PowerPoint
  • Multimedia – Videos, audio, podcasts
  • Computers and Peripheral Equipment – Desktops, tablets, keyboards
  • Telecommunications Equipment – Telephones, servers, routers
  • Multi-function Office Equipment – Scanners, printers, fax machines

Why Section 508 is important

According to the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall percentage of people with disabilities in the U.S. in 2017 was 13.2%. Blindness, low vision, learning disabilities or other difficulties may impair their ability to access information. Some disabilities are not always obvious. For example, color blindness affects 1 out of 12 males worldwide.

Those with disabilities use assistive technology (devices, software, or equipment) to help them work around their challenges. The most commonly used types of assistive technology include speech recognition software, screen readers, screen magnifiers, reading assistance software, and alternative input software and hardware. Before assistive technology can work properly, ICT needs to be made accessible by following Section 508 standards.

The bottom line is that meeting standards supports the needs of disabled employees and customers, allowing them to do their jobs and/or interact with the Federal government.

Examples of 508 Compliance

  • Web pages and forms are developed so persons with motor and other disabilities can navigate them only using a keyboard or other input device.
  • PDF documents are created so they can be read by screen readers and understood by users who are blind or have low vision.
  • Videos contain closed captioning for users who are hearing impaired.
  • Images on web pages and documents contain text alternatives.
  • Timecard software is built to work with assistive technology.
  • Copy machine buttons can be reached by someone in a wheelchair.

Becoming 508 Compliant

The first step to becoming compliant is learning the rules. Start by going through the full text of the standards and guidelines published by the U.S. Access Board. For web sites and applications, familiarize yourself with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which is incorporated into the 508 standards and guidelines. The WCAG is issued by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative and covers a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible and more usable to users in general. The Section 508 Main Site has a wealth of information, including courses on IT accessibility and Section 508 law.

Testing Tools and Methods

Section 508 standards should be used through the development life cycle rather than applied at the end. Before released for use, ICT products and services need to be tested for conformance with the Revised 508 Standards. There are some great testing tools available that will show you what exactly fails and how to fix it.

Here are few recommended tools and resources:

Following Section 508 standards is the best way to have products and services that are accessible to all your users, regardless of your legal requirements to do so. I hope this gave you a good start on understanding a bit about Section 508. I plan to write a couple follow up posts going into more detail on how to prepare and test documents with Word and Acrobat. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Related posts 508 Compliance for Word Documents and 508 Compliance for PDF Documents are now available.

This post was written by Fawn Kildoo

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