In January 2017, the U.S. Access Board issued the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines, updating its existing Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, (“508 Standards”), and the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines under Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 (“255 Guidelines”). Wow. That’s a mouthful, but important for digital service providers.
The new standards and guidelines harmonize with worldwide standards such as the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Section 508 will have long-lasting effects across all industries. Until now, U.S. accessibility laws were not aligned with the worldwide Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). These guidelines, already recognized in most developed countries, address many disabilities in vision, color perception, cognition, manual dexterity, and more.
The Federal CIO Council Accessibility Community of Practice (ACoP), and the Access Board jointly led the Section 508 Transition Support Initiative to help agencies transition from the Original 508 Standards to the Revised 508 Standards. These Standards are now in effect as of January 18, 2018.
According to the website section508.gov/content/accessibility, “The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is committed to the accessibility of its electronic and information technologies for individuals with disabilities by meeting or exceeding the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires that individuals with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to those who are not individuals with disabilities unless an undue burden would be imposed on us.”
The pertinent question in this transitional period for the digital industries is how these new regulations substantively change the legal environment around web accessibility and how we become compliant.
The most cost-effective and business-friendly way to approach compliance is to take the required steps and mitigate risk. The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are the gold standard for ensuring that websites are fully accessible. These standards are known, well-documented, and can be readily achieved with proper training and usability testing to ensure that websites and apps are accessible to all customers. This is just good business policy. The Department of Justice has for a long time interpreted Title III of the ADA to apply to web services, and recent court rulings concerning the accessibility of web content and services have tended to support that online businesses are a public accommodation subject to Title III of the ADA. It is time for all digital entities to embrace accessibility for all.
Section 508 standards apply to computer hardware and software, websites, and multimedia. Each of these must comply with WCAG 2.0 criteria levels of A and AA, which entail the most critical elements to making the user experience accessible. Website content including text, images, video, forms, animations, and more must be easily accessible to those with disabilities by incorporating header tags, alt attributes, and other elements. Creating new content with accessibility in mind or retrofitting existing content may seem overwhelming, but it is entirely doable, and must now be done. There are many aids available to assist in the process, such as using a web accessibility checklist that can help break down some of the necessary first steps to assessing your accessibility. A simple Google search of “Section 508” will display all of the information needed to become up to date.