508 Compliance: What Is It and How Can Your Website Meet the Standard?

There’s an inherent accessibility to the World Wide Web: With only a mouse, a keyboard and a monitor, anyone connected to the Internet has a wealth of data at their fingertips. But what about people with disabilities such as impaired sight or hearing or reduced motor function? Aren’t those citizens entitled to the same kind of access?

The U.S. federal government thinks so: According to a 2003 document from the Federal Aviation Administration, the government amended the Rehabilitation Act Section 508, compelling federal agencies to make electronic data accessible to all people with disabilities.

Although there’s no companion law for the private sector, businesses working with the government need to make sure their websites are 508 compliant. Where do they start?

Understanding 508

In 1986, Section 508 was added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. By 1997, it was apparent that the legislation had no teeth: Lack of enforcement mechanisms meant very little compliance. To address these shortcomings, the Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act was proposed. Ultimately, the government drew from this draft bill to craft a new version of Section 508 under the Rehabilitation Act.

According to Search CIO, the section mandates that “all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.” Section 508 is legally binding for all federal agencies and for any company that works on their behalf.

What’s Expected?

Appendix B, Section 1194.22 of 508 details the requirements for any “web-based intranet and internet information and applications.” As listed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these include:

  • A text equivalent for every nontext element (using an “alt text” or “longdesc” function)
  • Alternatives to any multimedia presentation (for example, video) must be synchronized
  • Web pages which use color to convey information must provide noncolor alternatives
  • Documents must be readable without using a style sheet
  • Redundant links must be available for server-side image map
  • Identifiable row and column headers for all data tables must be identified
  • Web pages must not cause screen flicker at frequencies greater than 2 Hz or lower than 55 Hz

In practical terms, this means ensuring that all pictures have text descriptions, in case a transcript or text-to-voice is required; all videos have captioning in sync with what’s happening on-screen; and information is accessible outside of any image themes or styles.

Agencies may be exempt from these provisions if they can show “undue burden.” To do so, they must submit a plan including estimated costs of accessibility; market research that shows the lack of an available solution; an explanation of why undue difficulty or expense would result; and an outline of how information will be provided to those with disabilities, regardless of product availability.

Compliance Tools Available

For companies working with the federal government, and therefore subject to 508 restrictions, creating a compliant website is easier with the right tools. A good starting point is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); the agency’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) almost perfectly parallel the expectations of Section 508.

The W3C offers a list of compliant web-development tools, along with a tool selection best-practices guide, which recommends examining content authorship applications to ensure they don’t alter or remove alt-text descriptions and which provides ways to check and correct inaccessible content. When in doubt, companies can refer to the W3C’s Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG).

Compliance by Choice

Private industry is under no obligation to make websites accessible, but the massive procurement power of government agencies makes Section 508 a necessity. Although working with federal departments may require investment in development tools and compliance evaluations, greater accessibility means a larger potential web audience and ultimately a better bottom line.

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