Section 508 Conformance: A Need-to-Know Guide

Posted on Thursday, 24 October 2019 by Marissa Sapega

The year was 1973. The United States left Vietnam after signing the Paris Peace Accord; Secretariat won the Triple Crown; American Graffiti premiered starring a young Richard Dreyfuss. While all these are certainly notable, another “groovy” but lesser known achievement you may not even be aware of was the signing of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In signing this bill into law, President Nixon took a major step in “leveling the playing field,” so to speak, for people with disabilities. It requires that people with disabilities be able to access programs and activities that are funded by federal agencies and federal employment.

I bet you’re thinking, wow, what a great law! But what does that have to do with Section 508? Patience, young grasshopper. We’re getting to that.

What is Section 508?

Many amendments have been made to The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 since the 1970’s, including the Section 508 amendment, which was added during the era of big hair, popped collars, and, yuck, “New Coke”: 1986. The Section 508 amendment itself was updated just before the turn of the century, in 1998.

So, what’s all the fuss about Section 508? Why is it important to organizations and businesses? Let’s start at the beginning. First and foremost, Section 508 requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and IT assets accessible to people with disabilities, whether they are Federal employees or members of the public. The actual experience of accessing this information by individuals with disabilities must be comparable to those without disabilities – unless making a comparable experience would pose an undue burden on the department or agency.

Guess what falls under electronic and IT assets? Websites and browser based experiences (like what you’d experience on a kiosk).

But how does Section 508 affect me?

At this point you’re probably thinking, cut to the chase already! If you’re a Federal employee you’re probably well aware of what Section 508 entails and if not, you’re off the hook, right?

Nope. Sorry.

Before you assume that non-Federal entities don’t have to worry about Section 508 compliance, consider the following:

  1. Does my company do business with a Federal agency, or might we do so in the future?
  2. Does anyone with whom my company does business also do business with the Federal government?

Give those a think. While you’re trying to decide if your company falls into one or both of those buckets, take a look at what you’ll need to do if either situation applies to your organization.

How to conform to Section 508

Still with me? Great, you’ve made it this far! Just a few more minutes and you’ll leave with a few new nuggets of knowledge.

If either previously mentioned scenario applies to your company, there are a few things you’ll have to do to conform to Section 508. We can break it into two parts: making your digital assets accessible and demonstrating this accessibility via a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT).

First things first. What is a “digital asset”? Broadly speaking, this term encompasses the following:

  • websites
  • apps (both desktop and mobile)
  • browser-based technology

That means virtually every organization today will have some sort of digital assets that could potentially need to conform to Section 508 accessibility guidelines.

Sounds intimidating, but in reality, it’s more straightforward than you think. Here’s why: Section 508 maps to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA. These “rules” have been created by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), an international group that works together to develop global web standards (like HTML). Because the web is ever evolving, so too are the standards. The latest version, WCAG 2.1 was released in June 2018.

But I digress.

At any rate, as long as your digital assets conform to WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA, you’re effectively conforming to Section 508 guidelines. But conformance is only half the battle. You also have to demonstrate this accessibility by creating a VPAT.

What is a VPAT?

Not that this actually explains anything, but earlier I mentioned that a VPAT is a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. Um…and that is…?

In laymen’s terms, a VPAT is a template created by the Federal government that outlines key accessibility requirements and provides a structure for a company to report their level of conformance to the guidelines.

Due to its complexity and esoteric subject matter, churning out a VPAT isn’t a particularly easy task. On a scale of simplicity, it ranks somewhere between doing your own taxes and trying to condense the Library of Congress into a single blog post. Luckily, there are plenty of experts who will gladly do it for you.

An expert will assess your digital assets, identify existing failures to adhere to the guidelines, and instruct you on how to resolve them. After you’ve taken steps to remediate the issues, the expert will evaluate how well you’ve done in addressing them. As a last step, they will create an accessibility report in the VPAT format. Ta da! Once you’ve demonstrated by way of a VPAT your digital assets substantially conform to WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA, you’re also demonstrating substantial Section 508 conformance.

What happens next

A word to the wise: digital assets always change. Assuming that once you’ve addressed WCAG failures identified by an expert you’re done for good is like assuming that since you’ve been to a doctor once in your life, you’ll never get sick again.

Along with creating a VPAT and assessing your digital assets, an expert can also help your company craft a strategy for maintaining conformance. This will not only ensure you’ll always be legally able to do business with the Federal government and any company with whom it does business, but also that everyone will have a great experience when engaging with your website, mobile app, or other digital products.

Hey, you made it! I hope this post helped you understand the importance and value of the Section 508 Amendment. That said, if you’re looking for more information on Section 508 or a VPAT than this guide details, contact us to discuss your specific accessibility needs and we’ll be happy to help.


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