A key requirement for website accessibility features comes from a law that’s typically referred to as Section 508. When this phrase is mentioned, it refers to complying with a specific set of guidelines created by the federal government of the United States. As with many federal requirements, the ins and outs of Section 508 can seem a little complex at first glance. Let’s break down what Section 508 means, if your organization falls under it, and what specific requirements are for meeting its accessibility standards.
What Exactly is Section 508?
It is an amendment of the federal Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law was mandated specifically to address changing workforces, increased technology use, new safety requirements, and prevent discrimination for American employees working for the government.
Websites didn’t exist in 1973, of course, but the Rehabilitation Act became a popular target for amendments to continue evolving mandates for federal agencies. In 1998, as website use became more common throughout the government, Section 508 was created as an amendment specifically to make government sites accessible to those with disabilities. That includes conditions like limited vision, seizure disorders, deafness, and much more.
This is particularly important because many federal websites are necessary for American citizens to access, and 1 in 4 U.S. adults are reported to live with a disability. Imagine if you were unable to read the IRS website after hearing about an important tax code update, or if you couldn’t apply to emergency student loan assistance because the website cannot work with your assistive technology? Rules like Section 508 help prevent issues like these and allow federal tools to be accessed by everyone.
What Federal Content Does Section 508 Apply To?
The law applies to all electronic and information technology that is developed, procured, maintained, or used by a federal agency.
This has ramifications for many industries that do business with the federal government as well. If an agency wants to buy a digital asset from a business, that asset has to meet Section 508 standards. If an agency contracts with an organization to offer services to U.S. citizens or others, those services typically have to meet Section 508 as well.
These standards apply not only to websites, but to many kinds of information and communication technology, including user guides, PDFs, web conferencing TVs, smartphones, and devices like laptops or desktop computers.
How Were Section 508 Standards Created?
The U.S Access Board is an independent federal agency specifically created to monitor equality for people with disabilities. That includes not only websites but transit vehicles, medical equipment, and all kinds of information technology. By keeping track of the current needs of people with disabilities and how technology is changing over time, the U.S. Access Board can develop what is called Information and Communication Technology (ICT) accessibility standards. These are the standards that Section 508 uses.
What Specific Standards Does Section 508 Mandate?
Web developers and content creators obviously want specific information about exactly what websites (and related technology) need to do to meet Section 508. At Blue Atlas Marketing, we can help you create a plan for your specific website with the top priorities, so you know exactly what to expect. But in general, Section 508 accessibility improvements include things like:
Subtitles and closed captioning: These additions are necessary to help those who may be deaf or hard of hearing understand your videos, podcasts, and so on. It’s also good for content as a whole: Subtitles, transcripts, and similar additions can help your SEO. Auto-generated captioning is one option, but for detailed videos a professional transcription may be best.
Adding skip navigation links and easy keyboard controls: Not all users are able to use a mouse or touchscreen. Skip navigation links are specially placed links that allow these users to immediately go to the content they want without dealing with lengthy navigation sequences. When paired with keyboard control options like easy tab navigation, it can make websites easy to move around on with a keyboard.
Compatibility with screen readers: Screen readers convert online text into speech for those who may not be able to read it. Websites should be designed so that screen readers can read them aloud without being confusing. Adjusting document language with HTML changes is one way of providing this accessibility.
Alternative image text: The alt text field in online images is especially important when it comes to accessibility. This is the text that those with vision problems can use to find a description of an image they cannot see. As a side benefit, these descriptions also help improve SEO.
Color contrast: Text, background, and images should all have appropriate color contrast for easier viewing.
Is Section 508 Ever Updated?
It has been in the past. For example, in 2017, the U.S. Access Board issued a “final rule” update to help keep the mandate current and update some important guidelines for telecommunications equipment. This rule also helped Section 508 more fully agree with important international standards from the European Commission, W3c (the World Wide Web Consortium), and WCAG 2.0 (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). While this rule is intended to be final, we’ve already seen how much technology has changed as the decades have passed, so future updates and reorganizations are possible.
Does My Organization Need to Meet Section 508 if We Aren’t Part of the Federal Government?
Even if you are not contracting with the federal government in any way, there are still numerous reasons to consider Section 508 optimization for your digital content and consumer-facing technology. That includes:
- Section 508 may be required anyway. Many states simply reference Section 508 in certain requirements because it’s easy. Other organizations may follow suit.
- It opens up international possibilities. Businesses that want to offer international transactions can use Section 508 to ensure that they are following guidelines from the European Commission and other organizations, since they attempt to harmonize standards when possible.
- It opens up new lead possibilities. It’s a good idea to make your website and digital content as accessible as possible to many types of potential customers. Customers that find your website easy to access while your competitors are less friendly will be more likely to stick with you.
- The optimization can pinpoint previous site problems. Accessibility optimization is a great way to fix issues with website appearance and navigation that may not have been noticed before.