Section 508 Compliance PDF Print E-mail

Two lawyersWhat is Section 508?

Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d) is an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires that the federal government make all electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities whenever possible.  The 1986 version of this amendment created non-binding guidelines for technology accessibility, and the 1998 version, which was signed into law on August 7th, established both binding guidelines, as well as a process for filing complaints.

It should be noted that while this law only specifically applies to the federal government (but not congress or the judiciary), many state and local agencies, as well as many in the private sector, also voluntarily attempt to comply.  Reasons for complying are vast, ranging from simply expanding ones market, to the economical.  The federal government has a lot of IT purchasing power, and when faced with two bids - one for an accessible product, and one which is not, all other things being equal, the accessible product will almost always win out due to Section 508.  Large corporations which wish to work with the federal government, such as IBM, often integrate accessibility standards into their entire line of products - it simply does not make sense to have two sets of everything, one accessible, and one not, so accessibility once again wins out.

While the general idea of making a Web site accessible is easy to understand, the specifics of exactly how the concept should be implemented, is not always straight-forward.  Section 508 required that the Access Board create a set of standards which define the concept of accessibility.  In October of 1998, the Access Board created the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC), which consisted of government officials, industry professionals, disability advocates, and academics.  The recommendations which were put forward by this committee were used to create a "proposed rule" on March 21, 2000; and after the public comment period, the official standards began to allow for Section 508 enforcement in June of 2001.

Functional Standards

There are 16 rules for Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications, which are outlined in Section 508, as follows:

(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).
(b) Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
(c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
(d) Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
(e) Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
(f) Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
(g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
(h) Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
(i) Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
(j) Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
(k) A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
(l) When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
(m) When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with §1194.21(a) through (l).
(n) When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
(p) When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

One checklist which is provided as an interpretation of these requirements, may be viewed, here.

How does this effect me?

If you do not work for the federal government, and have no interest in becoming a federal contractor, you may think that Section 508 compliance is not important for your commercial Web site.  Not so fast.  The Department of Justice has stated that they consider the Internet to be a "place of public accommodation," which means that according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Web sites are therefore required to be non-discriminatory and accessible to those people with disabilities, even if Section 508 technically does not apply.

There have been numerous court cases levied against private companies by the National Federation for the Blind, including one against AOL in 2004, and one against Target in 2006.  The New York State Attorney General also brought action against Priceline.com and Ramada Inns, claiming that their Web sites should be more accessible to the public.  So far, these cases have largely been settled outside of court, with the companies "at fault" promising to make their Web sites more accessible, and often shelling out large amounts of cash in "damages."

OK, so what should I do?

When developing your Web site, it is important to make sure that it is Section 508 compliant by doing things as simple as providing alt text on your images, and clearly labeling your data and header table cells.  When creating JavaScript and AJAX enriched Web sites, accessibility can become an even greater challenge, and methods for overcoming these obstacles are discussed in further detail throughout our tutorials section.