Section 508 Compliance Testing

Posted on Monday, 6 January 2020 by Brad Henry

What is Section 508 compliance testing?

A brief history of accessibility laws will be a helpful starting point. Most people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that was passed in 1990. It was created to establish accommodations for individuals with disabilities in the physical world. As the internet was formed and started to become available in the early 1990s, a need arose to apply similar accommodations to individuals and their ability to access and consume digital content. This resulted in a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (not the ADA) that included Section 508, which requires federal government agencies to make their digital content and technology accessible to employees and members of the general public that have a disability. Section 508 compliance testing allows for an organization to test their digital content’s compliance or conformance to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Section 508 compliance illustrated by glasses sitting on computer keyboard

How has Section 508 changed over time?

It has been more than 20 years since Section 508 went into law and much has changed in the digital landscape since then. WCAG is now the primary standard to which developers should adhere to meet 508 compliance requirements. They have continued to evolve to support the growth of digital content. The newest version of the guidelines, (WCAG 2.1), was released in June of 2018.  As of this article posting, WCAG 2.1 is not currently a 508 requirement as Section 508 still maps to WCAG 2.0.

Critical Information from WCAG 2.1 Abstract:

It is important to understand where things are going so that you can make decisions around how to best conform.  WCAG 2.1 states “Following these guidelines will make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including accommodations for blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these, and some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations; but will not address every user need for people with these disabilities. These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.”

A key statement is that these address guidelines for “web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.” This is important because the WCAG 2.0 standards were released a decade prior in 2008. If you remember back to 2008, the concept of a “smartphone” was still in its infancy; the first iPhone was only released in 2007. The rise of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices has grown exponentially since then and is pervasive in our lives today. By updating WCAG 2.1 to include standards that apply to these types of devices (among other items), the W3C has provided greater clarity on how to accommodate people with disabilities when they consume various types of digital content.

Does Section 508 compliance for digital content apply to every website?

A semi-short and non-legally binding thoughts (based on language on the ADA, Section 508, and other relevant sources) to whether you are required to make your website 508 compliant is “maybe, leaning towards most likely, but depends…”.  However, the government says “the short answer is no. However, other laws do apply, and the bottom line is that your website is likely required to be accessible.”  You can easily see why this can be a confusing topic. For an expert opinion on 508 compliance, contact TPG today. This article on 508 compliance versus 508 conformance may also be helpful.

Section 508 does apply to federal agencies and federally funded government contractors. This is how institutions that receive federal funding, like most higher-education institutions, became some of the early adopters of accessible websites. Section 508 is not the only legal consideration for the accessibility of your website either. The ADA also has legal implications for the accessibility of your digital content.

The Department of Justice released a letter in September of 2018have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination…”

The flexibility provided in this letter and lack of clarity in the ADA itself has resulted in some ongoing complications in interpretations. As a result, we have recently seen the courts become more involved in helping to answer these questions. One of the most notable and recent cases was the Robles v Domino’s in which a blind man sued Domino’s over its website’s accessibility. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case and left an appeals court decision in place that found in favor of the plaintiff. Domino’s Pizza is now gearing up for a trial.

The bottom line: even if you do not fall into the most obvious case where Section 508 compliance testing is required, your organization is not immune from being hit with an accessibility lawsuit.

How do I start Section 508 Testing for my website?

This depends on your business, your technical capabilities, and what you are trying to accomplish. If you are a relatively small business, one of the easiest ways to check your website for Section 508 compliance or 508 conformance, (TPG accessibility tools test for conformance to WCAG guidelines) is to run an automated website accessibility testing tool on your website to evaluate your baselines.

In the same way, what is actually legally required and by whom under 508 compliance can be confusing, testing for this compliance has similar nuances. There is where an accessibility consultant can assist with a manual accessibility website review and recommendations on how to create a viable accessibility program.

If you are setting up an accessibility program at an enterprise-class organization where there are higher degrees of legal risk, you may need professional help to ensure you are putting the right steps in place. TPG can help you get started. Just complete your free website accessibility scan, which will provide you with the necessary information to help you assess your current level of website accessibility and provide recommendations to improve it.

Additional Resources on Section 508

Section 508 Conformance: A Need-to-Know Guide


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