Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
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In 1998 the US Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. § 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.
Section 508 was originally added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in 1986. The original section 508 dealt with electronic and information technologies, in recognition of the growth of this field.
In 1997, The Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act was proposed in the U.S. legislature to correct the shortcomings of the original section 508; the original Section 508 had turned out to be mostly ineffective, in part due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms. In the end, this Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act, with revisions, was enacted as the new Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in 1998.
Section 508 addresses legal compliance through the process of market research and government procurement and also has technical standards against which products can be evaluated to determine if they meet the technical compliance. Because technology can meet the legal provisions and be legally compliant (e.g., no such product exists at time of purchase) but may not meet the technical compliance (doesn't meet the Access Board's technical accessibility standards) users are often confused between these two issues. Additionally, evaluation of compliance can be done only when reviewing the procurement process and documentation used when making a purchase or contracting for development, the changes in technologies and standards themselves, it requires a more detailed understanding of the law and technology than at first seems necessary.
There is nothing in section 508 that requires private web sites to comply unless they are receiving federal funds or under contract with a federal agency. Commercial best practices include voluntary standards and guidelines as the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Automatic accessibility checkers (engines) such as "IBM Rational Policy Tester" and AccVerify, refer to Section 508 guidelines but have difficulty in accurately testing content for accessibility.
The guidelines are currently being updated by the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC). 
- Federal agencies can be in legal compliance and still not meet the technical standards. Section 508 §1194.3 General exceptions describe exceptions for national security (e.g., most of the primary systems used by the National Security Agency (NSA)), incidental items not procured as work products, individual requests for non-public access, fundamental alteration of a product's key requirements, or maintenance access.
- In the case that implementation of such standards causes "undue hardship" to the Federal agency or department involved, such Federal agencies or departments are required to supply the data and information to covered disabled persons by alternative means that allow them to make use of such information and data.
The original legislation mandated that the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the Access Board, establish a draft for their Final Standards for accessibility for such electronic and information technologies in December 2001. The final standards were approved in April 2001 and became enforceable on June 25, 2001.
The latest information about these standards and about support available from the Access Board in implementing them, as well as, the results of surveys conducted to assess compliance is available from the Board's newsletter Access Currents. The Section 508 Standards, tools, and resources are available from The Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), in the U.S. General Services Administration's Office of Government-wide Policy at section508.gov.
Summary of Section 508 technical standards
- Software Applications and Operating Systems: includes usability for people that are visually impaired, such as alternative keyboard navigation.
- Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications: assures accessibility to web page graphics by the visually impaired using assistive technology such as screen readers and refreshable Braille displays. This is accomplished by using text labels and descriptors for graphics.
- Telecommunications Products: addresses accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This includes technology compatibility with hearing aids, assistive listening devices, and TTYs.
- Videos or Multimedia Products: includes requirements for captioning of multimedia products such as training or informational multimedia productions. Captioning or video descriptors must be able to be turned on or off.
- Self Contained, Closed Products: products with embedded software, such as information kiosks, copiers, and fax machines, often cannot be used with assistive technology. This standard requires that access features be built into these systems.
- Desktop and Portable Computers: discusses accessibility related to mechanically operated controls such as keyboards and touch screens.
Frequently asked questions
- Is this part of the Americans with Disabilities Act?
- No, it is not. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a different law. Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of the original Rehabilitation Act laid some of the groundwork for the ADA in the areas of rehabilitation, training and employment of disabled people.
- Is this related to, or the same as, the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?
- They are not the same, but they are related. These WAI guidelines were considered in establishing the Access Board's Standards, as well as other resources. But the W3C's Web Content Accessibilities Guidelines are completely voluntary. On the other hand, the Access Board's Standards are enforceable as law, and Section 508 provides remedies to those aggrieved by violations of this requirement, which, after administrative remedies are exhausted, allow for both private rights of action in court and for reasonable attorneys fees. Although compensatory or punitive damages will not be available to prevailing plaintiffs, equitable remedies, such as declaratory and injunctive relief, are available.
- How do agencies of the Federal Government make their websites 508 compliant?
- The portion of Section 508 which specifically relates to websites is under Sub-part B, 1194.22. In order for a Federal agency website to comply with Section 508, it must adhere to the sixteen provisions listed therein. The Access Board's website has an annotated reference  with recommendations on how to implement these provisions, but the standards have not been updated since December 21, 2000. On April 18, 2006, the Access Board published a notice in the Federal Register announcing its intent to establish an Advisory Committee to make recommendations for revisions and updates to its Section 508 Standards for electronic and information technology. The Access Board requested applications from interested organizations for representatives to serve on the Committee. The Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) met for the first time on September 27-29, 2006, at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.
- What's the difference between accessibility and usability?
- Although Section 508 addresses the accessibility of information technology by people with disabilities, it is no guarantee of practical usability by them. While usability is not mandated by federal regulations, it has become a best practice in government and industry.
- Are there certain agencies exempt from this legislation?
- The law applies to all Federal agencies. There is some debate as to what legally defines an agency. Other Federal regulations and guidelines (e.g., Section 501 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) require equal access for individuals with disabilities. Therefore, Federal agencies are required, upon request, to provide information and data to individuals with disabilities through an alternative means of access that can be used by the individuals.
Also note that an agency can still be in legal compliance by meeting one of the § 1194.3 General exceptions (e.g., the NSA). However, systems which are critical to the direct fulfillment of military or intelligence missions do not include a system that is to be used for routine administrative and business applications (including payroll, finance, logistics, and personnel management applications) and therefore must be Section 508 compliant.
- Are state and local agencies covered by Section 508?
- Although the law applies to all Federal agencies, state and local government is also impacted by the act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. .
- Assistive technology
- Computer accessibility
- Design for All
- Job Accommodation Network
- Inclusion (value and practice)
- System testing
- Universal design
- Universal usability
- Web accessibility
- World Wide Web Consortium
- ↑ 17 U.S.C. § 105
- ↑ Update of the 508 Standards and the Telecommunications Act Guidelines
- ↑ "Side by Side Web Content Accessibility Guidelines vs. 508". http://www.jimthatcher.com/sidebyside.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Memo Regarding Remedies Available Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act". American Foundation for the Blind. http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=3&TopicID=135&DocumentID=298. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Web-based intranet and internet information and applications". Section508.gov. http://www.section508.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Content&ID=12#Web. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Section 508 Homepage: Electronic and Information Technology". United States Access Board. http://www.access-board.gov/508.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Notice of intent to establish advisory committee". United States Access Board. http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/comm-notice.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "New 508 Standards Advisory Committee Holds Its First Meeting". United States Access Board. http://www.access-board.gov/news/508committee-meeting.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Five Factors of Usability". TecAccess. http://tecaccess.net/content/accessibility/usability.shtml. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "General Exceptions". United States Access Board. http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/standards.htm#3. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ↑ "Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities". http://www.ada.gov/websites2.htm.
- CITES/DRES Web Accessibility Best practices
- United States Access Board the Federal Agency responsible for Section 508 technical standards
- Section 508 Checklist from WebAIM.org
- USPS AS-508-A, Section 508 Technical Reference Guide in HTML Format
- USPS AS-508-A, Section 508 Technical Reference Guide in PDF Format
- Federal Register December 2000 Section 508 Electronic and information technology accessibility standards
- Federal Register April 2005 Section 508 related Federal Acquisition Rules
- Section508.gov - free 508 training.
- Raising awareness for E&I (Electronic & Information Technology Accessibility)
- Assistance with Section 508 Compliance Developmentcs:Section 508