How to Make Online Information Disability-Friendly
The Basics of Section 508 Compliance
Recent years have brought much discussion to the OEHS community about compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 simply states that each federal department or agency has a duty to provide federal employees with disabilities—and disabled members of the public seeking federally-provided services—complete access to and use of online information, comparable to that accessible to individuals without disabilities. If adapting existing technology to the accessibility needs of disabled people proves beyond the federal agency or department’s abilities, Section 508 also makes clear that disabled individuals should be provided with an appropriate alternative means of access.
The section’s wording is relatively straightforward, but in practical application, it is not always apparent who must comply with Section 508, or how compliance is achieved. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have only online access to job-related information, meetings, and training. In the health and safety field, online training was beginning to replace traditional classroom education even before the pandemic. Employees with disabilities will need to be accommodated to this new form of work organization and training. Therefore, private companies with sales, information, or training services on the web should consider 508 compliance.
AN INTRODUCTION TO SECTION 508 In 1986, Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794d) in response to the rapid growth of electronic and information technologies. In 1998, the rule was updated to require federal agencies to make their electronic information accessible to people with disabilities. Then in 2017, the U.S. Access Board, an independent agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), instituted a “508 refresh”—officially titled “Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines.” ICT is a broad term encompassing all electronic and information technologies covered by Section 508, including computer hardware and software, electronic information kiosks and transaction machines, telecommunications equipment, multifunctional office machines, websites, electronic documents, and multimedia such as video. This refresh jointly updated and reorganized both the 508 requirements and Section 255 of the Communication Act guidelines. (Section 255 addresses access to telecommunications products and services and applies to manufacturers of telecommunication equipment.)
The primary purposes of the refresh were to address advances in ICT, ensure consistency in accessibility, encourage development of ICT to achieve these goals, and make the requirements easier to understand and follow. Technological advances had resulted in widespread use of multifunctional devices that no longer fit the product-by-product approach used in the 1998 508 rule. The refresh replaced the product-based approach with requirements based on functionality to ensure that accessibility for people with disabilities keeps pace with advances in ICT.
The 508 refresh also harmonized Section 508 requirements with those of other U.S. and international standard-setting bodies, such as the European Commission and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT. Harmonization promotes greater accessibility, enhances uniformity, and creates more market incentives for accessibility in information and communication technology.
In 2018, the 508 rule was corrected to restore provisions for teletypewriter (TTY) access that were inadvertently omitted in 2017.
WHO MUST COMPLY? On the surface, Section 508 seems to be limited to the federal government. Section 508 requires equal access for any user with a disability, including federal employees, online applicants for federal jobs, and private citizens requesting information, filling out forms, or otherwise visiting a federally affiliated website. However, the guidelines also apply to “vendors, contractors and partners of those [federal] agencies operating in the United States or abroad.” This broad category includes private companies that have contracts with the federal government, and includes entities such as airports, healthcare facilities, many legal and financial organizations, and others.
All public and private colleges and universities supported by federal grants and funding programs must comply with Section 508. In addition, all higher education institutions must make their programs and services accessible to qualified students with disabilities, and the U.S. Department of Education considers accessibility to include Section 508 compliance.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, such as for national security, maintenance access, and undue hardship. In addition, existing ICT, including content, that meets the original 1986 508 standards does not have to be upgraded to meet the refreshed standards unless it is altered.
While websites operated by state or local governments or public sector organizations are generally not bound by Section 508, many state and local entities, especially those that interact regularly with federal agencies, adopt federal standards as their guidelines. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12101) requires covered entities to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Covered entities include public entities (local and state level) and private employers with 15 or more employees, as well as employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees—all programs and services offered by these entities must comply with the ADA. In situations where these programs and services are accessed electronically, this requirement has been interpreted to include compliance with the 508 guidelines, thus broadly expanding applicability of the rule.
In the health and safety field, online training was beginning to replace traditional classroom education even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees with disabilities will need to be accommodated to this new form of work organization and training.
It is important to consider ongoing case law when determining whether Section 508 applies to your organization, or if your organization has incorporated Section 508 guidelines into its communications, including those related to OEHS training. The applicability of civil rights laws such as Section 508 evolves as court cases address operational administration and definitions. For example, a number of “bricks vs. clicks” legal actions have expanded ADA’s authority to cyberspace, even for entities that may not have actual physical facilities. While ADA is the current base law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is also cited in these legal cases. Notable cases have included:
Access Now v. Southwest Airlines, 2002. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida decided that the Southwest Airlines website had not violated the ADA, as the ADA is concerned with things that have a physical existence and thus cannot be applied to cyberspace. The website’s “virtual ticket counter” was deemed a virtual construct, and hence not a “public place of accommodation.”
Smith v., 2009. and its parent company were sued because customers with disabilities could not reserve hotel rooms through their websites without substantial extra efforts that persons without disabilities were not required to perform. In settlement, the defendant companies agreed to add features to their online travel reservation systems so that travelers with disabilities could use the online services to search for and reserve hotel rooms.
National Federation of the Blind v. Target, 2009. The retailer Target was sued because people with low or no vision could not use their website. The U.S. Federal District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that commercial websites are required to be accessible under the ADA and state laws.
National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, 2012. The District Court of Massachusetts held that even though Netflix was based solely on the Internet, it had to offer captioned movies for its streaming service because it was dominant in interstate commerce, with 60 percent of the available market. The case was settled out of court, with Netflix agreeing to provide captions for all programming from then on. However, in 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in a separate lawsuit (Cullen v. Netflix) that the ADA doesn’t apply to the online video streaming service since it is “not connected to any actual, physical place.”
Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, 2019. Most recently, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal by Domino’s Pizza and let stand a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held the ADA protects access to not only brick-and-mortar public accommodations, but also to the websites and apps of those businesses.
Although not universal, the trend is toward more accessibility in services offered to the public via the Internet. Thus, private companies with sales and information on the web should consider 508 compliance.
For OEHS professionals, the new ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 standard, Accepted Practices for E-Learning in Safety, Health and Environmental Training, provides guidance specific to e-learning in safety, health, and environmental training programs and specifies “compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) shall be incorporated into the training program.”
SECTION 508 REQUIREMENTS The 2017 refresh of Section 508 includes scoping and technical requirements presented in three appendices. It is modeled after the regulatory approach first used by the Access Board’s 2004 accessibility guidelines for the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). Appendices A and C specify 508-covered functional performance criteria, technical requirements for hardware and software, criteria for support documentation and services, and referenced standards.
Like the original Section 508, the refresh applies to the entirety of a federal agency’s public-facing content, including websites, documents and media, blog posts, and social media sites. The refresh also specifically lists the types of non-public-facing content that must comply. These types include electronic content used by a federal agency for official communications: emergency notifications, initial or final decisions adjudicating administrative claims or proceedings, internal or external program or policy announcements, notices of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunities or personnel actions, formal acknowledgements or receipts, questionnaires or surveys, templates or forms, educational or training materials, and web-based intranets.
In acknowledgement of the increased prevalence of multifunctional devices, such as smartphones, the 508 refresh identifies broad product categories that have similar functions—for example, by referring to all devices used to browse the Internet rather than individual products.
The functional performance criteria are outcome-based provisions that address accessibility relevant to disabilities affecting vision, hearing, color perception, speech, cognition, manual dexterity, reach, and strength. The functional performance criteria require that technologies with:
  • visual modes also be usable for individuals with limited vision and without vision or color perception
  • audible modes also be usable for individuals with limited hearing and without hearing
  • speech-based modes for input, control, or operation also be usable for individuals without speech
  • manual operation modes also be usable for individuals with limited reach and strength and without fine motor control or simultaneous manual operations
The criteria also require the inclusion of features to make use simpler and easier for people with limited cognitive, language, or learning abilities.
These requirements apply to all ICT hardware, including computers, information kiosks, multifunctional copy machines, and telecommunication products, that transmit information or have a user interface employed by a federal department or agency and its vendors, contractors, and partners. The criteria are intended to address concerns with technologies such as closed functionality, biometrics, privacy, operable parts, data connections, display screens, status indicators, color coding, audible signals, two-way voice communication, closed captioning for video and multimedia, and audio description. The refresh also clarifies the way federally employed technology interacts with assistive tools such as screen readers and refreshable Braille displays.
Section 508 also includes software requirements that apply to the code that directs the use and operation of ICT, including web browser applications and mobile apps, operating systems, and processes that transform or operate on information and data. These provisions cover the overlapping sphere between software and assistive technology, applications, and authoring tools.
ICT support documentation and services must cover how to use the access and compatibility features of the hardware and software. Alternate formats, such as documentation provided through non-electronic means, must be available upon request. Support services, including help desks, call centers, training services, and automated technical support, must accommodate the communication needs of customers with disabilities and include information on access and compatibility features.
The refreshed guidelines refer as well to several voluntary consensus standards. These include WCAG 2.0 and standards on ergonomics for the design of accessible software, interference to hearing aids by wireless telephones, handset-generated audio band magnetic noise of wire-line telephones, speech quality in digital transmissions, audio description by digital television tuners, accessible PDF files, and keypad arrangement.
The 508 refresh requires most federal website content to meet or exceed the four criteria laid out for Level AA compliance testing with WCAG 2.0:
  • Perceivable: Website content, information and interfaces must be presented in a way that users can easily perceive, including users with vision, hearing, or cognitive disabilities.
  • Operable: Website navigation and interfaces must be operable for users of all abilities, including those who rely on keyboard-only navigation or assistive technology.
  • Understandable: Website information, content, and design should be presented in ways that are readable and understandable for users of all abilities.
  • Robust: Website content should be accessible to all users by current standards and adaptable to keep pace with developments in accessibility, such as improved assistive technology.
ENSURING SECTION 508 COMPLIANCE Achieving full 508 compliance can be a complicated process. In fact, it is estimated that only about 2 percent of websites are fully accessible for people with a disability. Section 508 addresses legal compliance through the process of market research and government procurement and also has technical standards against which products can be evaluated to determine compliance.
When evaluating a computer hardware or software product that may be used by a U.S. government agency, information technology managers can check for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), created by the Information Technology Industry Council and completed by the product’s vendor. A VPAT lists potential attributes of the product that affect its accessibility. (One challenge to open-source software is that there is no vendor to provide support or write a VPAT.)
A combination of manual and automated testing is advisable to determine Section 508 compliance. An automated scan of a website can detect many accessibility issues and can be conducted periodically to make sure that the site does not fall out of compliance as content changes. Online assessment tools are also available, including some provided by the Access Board. However, manual accessibility testing should still be used to ensure that the solutions work for real disabled people. Testing should include checking compatibility with assistive tools, keyboard-only navigation, accessibility coding, and so on.
A STEP TOWARD FAIRNESS ICT is woven into every aspect of our lives, but many people with disabilities are still often unable to effectively access information and services via mobile devices, computers, and other devices. The Section 508 refresh is a major step in correcting these disadvantages and providing greater social equity and fairness.
SUSAN MARIE VIET, PhD, CIH, FAIHA, works for Westat in Rockville, Maryland. She is the current chair of AIHA’s Communication and Training Methods Committee and the vice chair of the ANSI/ASSP Z490 Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health and Environmental Training Committee.
BONNIE RATHBUN, CIH, CIT, works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C. She is past chair of AIHA's Communication and Training Methods Committee.
BRANDI KISSELL, CIH, works at Rogers Corporation in Newark Valley, New York. She is also a past chair of AIHA's Communication and Training Methods Committee.
All about Section 508
The latest information about Section 508, support from the HHS Access Board in implementing it, and the results of surveys conducted to assess compliance is available from the Board’s newsletter, Access Currents. Meanwhile, Section 508 standards, tools, and resources, including accessibility compliance checklists, are available from the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Government-Wide Policy.