Section 508 refresh

This article is the result of an interview with David Capozzi, Executive Director at the US Access Board.

On January 18, 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule that updates accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) in the federal sector covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The rule also updates guidelines for telecommunications equipment subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act.

Background

David Capozzi. PhotoThe Access Board issued the original 255 Guidelines for telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment in 1998. Two years later, in 2000, the Board published the original 508 Standards. The underlying laws (Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act) require the Board to periodically review and, as appropriate, amend the standards and guidelines to reflect technological advances or changes in technology. This is the first update of the original standards and guidelines.

The 2017 final rule was based on input from the Board’s Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee. The committee was comprised of 41 members from a broad cross-section of stakeholders representing industry, disability groups, and government agencies. The committee also included international representatives from the European Commission, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The Board also received feedback from two advance notices of proposed rulemaking in 2010 and 2011 and a proposed rule in 2015. In total, we received 637 public comments and held 7 public hearings.

Most important changes

Technological advances over the past two decades have resulted in the widespread use of multifunction devices that called into question the ongoing utility of the product-by-product approach used in the Board’s original 508 Standards and 255 Guidelines. Consequently, one of the primary purposes of the final rule was to replace the product-based approach with requirements based on functionality, and, thereby, ensure that accessibility for people with disabilities keeps pace with advances in ICT.

The Revised 508 Standards and 255 Guidelines incorporate by reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, a globally-recognized and technologically-neutral set of accessibility guidelines for Web content. For Section 508-covered ICT, all covered Web and non-Web content and software – including, for example, Web sites, intranets, word processing documents, portable document format documents, and project management software – is required, with a few specific exceptions, to conform to WCAG 2.0’s Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements. By applying a single set of requirements to Web sites, electronic documents, and software, the revised requirements adapt the existing 508 Standards to reflect the newer multifunction technologies (e.g., smartphones that have telecommunications functions, video cameras, and computer-like data processing capabilities) and address the accessibility challenges that these technologies pose for individuals with disabilities.

The final rule harmonizes its updated requirements with other guidelines and standards both in the U.S. and abroad, including EN 301 549 “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe” and with WCAG 2.0. Throughout our update process the Board worked very hard to ensure consistency with other consensus guidelines and international standards to promote global harmonization and facilitate compliance. ICT requirements that are closely aligned remove ambiguity, increase marketplace competition, and lead to better accessibility features and outcomes.

The Revised 508 Standards specify that all types of public-facing content, as well as nine categories of non-public-facing content that communicate agency official business, have to be accessible, with “content” encompassing all forms of electronic information and data. The existing standards require Federal agencies to make electronic information and data accessible, but do not delineate clearly the scope of covered information and data. As a result, document accessibility has been inconsistent across Federal agencies. By focusing on public-facing content and certain types of agency official communications that are not public facing, the revised requirements bring needed clarity to the scope of electronic content covered by the 508 Standards and, thereby, help Federal agencies make electronic content accessible more consistently.

Federal agencies will have until January 2018 to comply with the Revised 508 Standards. This extended period for compliance is responsive to some agencies’ concerns about the time it will take them to make ICT compliant with the Revised 508 Standards. In addition, the Revised 508 Standards include a “safe harbor” provision for existing (i.e., legacy) ICT. Under this safe harbor, unaltered, existing ICT (including content) that complies with the original 508 Standards need not be modified or upgraded to conform to the Revised 508 Standards. This safe harbor applies on an element-by-element basis in that each component or portion of existing ICT is assessed separately.

Progress

Every two years the Department of Justice is required to issue a report containing information and recommendations regarding the extent to which electronic and information technology of the Federal Government is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. The latest report was issued in September 2012.

Its key finding was that “[s]ome agencies have achieved substantial success in implementing and complying with Section 508. However, many agencies continue to face significant challenges in adopting appropriate policies and procedures, establishing a Section 508 office or program, providing training, coordinating efforts, and establishing accountability.”

Other findings include:

  • Slightly more than 50% of agency components had established a general policy to implement and comply with Section 508.
  • Nearly 75% of agency components had appointed a Section 508 coordinator, but only 35% of agency components had established a Section 508 office or program.
  • Agency components experienced difficulty in providing Section 508 training to their personnel - only 40% of agency components provided Section 508 training, and these agency components provided only a small number of hours of training to their agency acquisition workforce (less than one hour) or ICT developers (a little more than one hour).
  • A majority of the agency components currently incorporate accessibility provisions into their ICT procurements. However, less than 50% of agency components incorporated specific applicable Section 508 Standards as requirements in each procurement solicitations. A majority of the agency components only provided standardized compliance language or clauses in their solicitations. Additionally, instead of relying on actual product testing to validate Section 508 compliance, agency components most often relied on reviewing the materials submitted by the contractor or vendor to evaluate whether the deliverables met the Section 508 requirements.
  • Agency components reported 140 administrative complaints and seven civil actions since June 21, 2001, the effective date of the Section 508 Standards. However, most of the administrative complaints and civil actions were filed against components in very large agencies.
  • 70% of agency components reported having accessibility policies in place for website development and that their web pages, web-based forms, and web-based applications were generally accessible. Also, nearly 58% of agency components reported performing routine automated and/or manual evaluation and remediation on their websites. Agency components reported some difficulty, however, with providing captioning and audio description for multimedia content and providing keyboard accessibility.

Other information

Webinars

The Board conducted two webinars on the final rule on January 31 and February 2. The webinars provided an overview of the final rule’s scope and structure, highlighted substantive changes from earlier requirements, and answered questions from attendees.

Delayed effective date

On March 2, 2017, the Access Board postponed by one day the effective date of its final rule updating accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act which was published on January 18. This action was taken in response to a White House memorandum that directs federal agencies to delay for 60 days the effective date of recently published rules that, as of the date of the memorandum (January 20), had not yet taken effect. In keeping with the White House memorandum, the Access Board has postponed the effective date of the ICT final rule until March 21. This amounts to a one-day delay in the effective date of the rule relative to its originally-published effective date (March 20), as indicated in a notice the Access Board published in the Federal Register.

The postponed effective date does not change the scoping or technical requirements in the updated 508 Standards or 255 Guidelines. Nor does it alter compliance dates of the rule. Compliance with the updated Section 508 Standards is not required until January 18, 2018 or, in the case of ICT procurements, dates to be established by the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council. The compliance date for the Section 255 Guidelines will be set by Federal Communications Commission when it adopts the guidelines.

The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.

Final rule, opens in new window

Standard - EN 301 549, opens in new window

The latest report issued in September 2012, opens in new window

Webinar on the final rule on January 31, 2017, opens in new window

Webinar on the final rule on February 2, 2017, opens in new window

Federal Register, opens in new window