Section 508 Refresh (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, 19 January 2017 by Matt Feldman

Over 8 years ago the US Access Board received a final report from an advisory committee focused on refreshing the accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). This was commonly referred to as the “Section 508 Refresh”. Today we can finally call this important milestone complete and look forward to process and innovation in the field of accessibility.

Background

In 1998 the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This amendment is known as Section 508.

This law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic information technology. EIT applies to a broad range of categories and products including: telephones, computers, kiosks, web sites, applications, multimedia, office equipment and electronic documents.

At its core, the law requires agencies to ensure employees with disabilities and members of the public have equivalent access to content and systems as we enter a digital age.

Section 508 addresses both legal compliance through incorporation with the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as well as technical compliance thanks to standards developed by the United States Access Board, also referred to as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. These standards were approved and enforceable as of 2001.

The authoring of these technical standards was a significant undertaking, but critical to the success and impact of this law. It not only established an industry standard for vendors and agencies, but more importantly, impacted the quality of life for hundreds of millions.

Refresh History

Anyone that has recently purchased a cell phone can attest that technology advances at an unbelievable pace. Within a few weeks of purchase there is already something faster, smaller and more advanced available on the market.

To put things into perspective, in 2001 the smartphone was still in development. Today over one billion smartphones are used worldwide and have become a fundamental device in our daily lives.

When the Access Board published its technical standards, they were grouped into six broad product categories, each with unique requirements.

  1. Software applications and operating systems
  2. Web based information and applications
  3. Telecommunications products
  4. Video and multimedia products
  5. Self contained, closed products
  6. Desktop and portable computers

In combination, EIT was also required to comply with functional performance criteria and requirements for information, documentation and support.

This approach was taken in part to simplify the process of determining what standards applied to a product being procured or developed. It was very effective early on, but the gaps quickly came into focus as technology evolved.

Which brings us back to the smartphone. What category would a smartphone fit into? The answer is — many. It’s not only a portable computer, but also includes an operating system and telecommunication capabilities.

Within a few years, many were already calling for a refresh of these standards to better align with the quickly evolving IT landscape.

In 2006, the refresh process was initiated with the establishment of an advisory committee named TEITAC – Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee. To reflect a balanced perspective, this committee was comprised of representatives from industry, disability groups, government agencies, foreign countries, and other stakeholders.

TEITAC was tasked with developing a report that would influence the Access Board’s responsibility to refresh Section 508 and its guidelines. The focus of the report included research on types of products, barriers for individuals with disabilities, solutions to these barriers, recommendations on harmonization with international standards, and content for the revised guidelines and standards.

The final report from this advisory committee was delivered on April 3, 2008. [Long Pause] Over 8 years later, after numerous drafts, revised drafts and periods of public comment, we finally have an approved final rule.

On January 9th the Access Board released a final rule that updates accessibility requirements covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 along with guidelines for telecommunications equipment subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934.

This joint release is intended to ensure that information and communications technology (ICT) covered by each statute be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

The revised standards and guidelines were published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017.

Key Changes

Function-Based Approach

The original technical standards were organized by product type. This organization resulted in frustration and confusion as products evolved and new technology emerged overlapped these categories. A function-based approach was established to minimize confusion. Instead of basing requirements on “what it is,” the emphasis shifts to “what it does.” This improves the ease and accuracy of defining requirements and safeguards the language as technology evolves.

Delayed Compliance Date

Earlier revision of the rule defined a six-month compliance requirement after publication in the FAR. This has been extended to one year, which means agencies and vendors are not required to comply until January 18, 2018. This change will be met with mixed reviews from many federal agencies that have already begun incorporating some standards/guidelines into their respective programs and policies.

Safe Harbor Provision

When the new Section 508 guidelines take effect, products that comply with the standards published in 2001 and do not include “substantive changes” will not be required to meet the new standards. See specific language for this provision below:

E202.2 Any component or portion of existing ICT that complies with an earlier standard issued pursuant to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and that has not been altered on or after January 18, 2018 shall not be required to be modified to conform to the revised 508 standards.

The Access Board has committed to providing extensive technical assistance to ensure this new provision is understood and applied appropriately.

Functional Performance Criteria Modified

Functional Performance Criteria was an important sub-part in the original amendment and will always be relevant even as technology evolves. These criteria include provisions that address the accessibility needs of various disability groups including people who are blind, low-vision, deaf, hard of hearing, without speech, and have mobility impairments.

Missing from the original list are users with cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia. A list of cognitive disabilities has been added along with modifications to the language to align with best practice application and harmonization with standards like EN 301549 – the European standard.

This is only new to Section 508, as this was already addressed in Section 255.

WCAG 2.0 Incorporated by Reference

Perhaps the most significant and anticipated revision is the incorporation of WCAG 2.0 by reference. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. They are a set of guidelines that specify how to make content accessible, primarily for people with disabilities, but also for all user agents. The current version, WCAG 2.0, was published in December 2008.

WCAG includes 3 levels of conformance: A, AA, AAA. These levels correspond to a combination of how essential, how effective, and how achievable each is, with AAA often being the most complex to meet. The Section 508 revised language only incorporates Level A and Level AA success criteria.

Another important clarification is the application of WCAG. As the title suggests, these guidelines were written with “web” content in mind. However, many of these requirements can also be applied to non-web content like software and documents. This same approach is used internationally with the most prominent example being the European Standard.

This harmonization is an important step forward as agencies and vendors can focus on one set of common requirements.

Milestones

  • July 6, 2006 – Access Board named TEITAC members
  • April 3, 2008 – Advisory committee presented report
  • February 23, 2014 – Proposed rule submitted to OMB
  • September 14, 2016 – Access Board approved final rule
  • January 9, 2017 – Final Rule published
  • January 18, 2017 – ICT Requirements published in FAR
  • March 20, 2017 – Final rule effective
  • January 18, 2018 – Delayed compliance date

What is Next

These revised guidelines will also benefit from additional technical documentation and training. The Access Board will be working with a variety of federal agencies and partners to develop these materials.

Members of the Access Board will provide a more detailed review of the ICT final rule on February 2, 2017. You can sign up for this webinar online.

Check back soon! Additional posts with follow as we monitor the impacts on both the federal government and industry.

About Matt Feldman

Matt is currently the Director of Services at TPG, joining the team in November 2016. He brings over seventeen years experience with accessibility, information technology, policy consulting and program management. Prior to TPG he served as a Practice Manager overseeing large-scale accessibility transformations for numerous Fortune 500 companies. He has also served as a technical analyst and Section 508 subject matter expert for numerous Federal Agencies including the Department of Defense, Defense Logistics Agency, Internal Revenue Service, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and Department of Homeland Security.

Comments

  1. Great review! I am already referencing this article in my internal accessibility legal overview. Are there any provisions specifically for new content created on or afer March 20th? Does new content have to comply with updated requirements right away, or is Jan 18th, 2018 the date by which all content needs to comply?

  2. Thanks Birkir! There are no provisions for new content created on or after March 20th, 2017. Keep in mind — even though the new rule’s effective date is March 20, 2017 — compliance with the new requirement will not be required until January 18, 2018 — one year after the rule was published in the FAR.

    It’s also important to note that since this post – President Trump has issued a freeze on new/pending regulations.

    http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/reince-priebus-regulations-memo/

    Because this has already been published in the FAR (Jan 18) but not reached its effective date (Mar 20) there is a 60 day delay for review. This does open the potential for reopening the regulation. [Grimacing Face] We are hopeful this is only a formality and won’t impact the effective date or compliance timeline. Fingers Crossed!

  3. One important clarification to ensure I both understand your question and don’t mislead others. New provisions for covered electronic content are included in the rule.

    https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/01/18/2017-00395/information-and-communication-technology-ict-standards-and-guidelines#h-15

    This important clarification ensures the scope of electronic content covered by the 508 Standards are consistently applied across agencies and organizations. This includes all types of public-facing content as well as nine categories of non-public facing content that communicates official business.

    We will elaborate on this topic and others in Part 2 of our 508 Refresh blog series.

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