In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and added Section 508. This section aims to “. require federal organizations to make their information and electronic technologies (EITs) accessible to persons with disabilities. In general, the ADA applied to the commercial world and the physical built environment, not to the federal government. It took a long time to realize that the ADA was also applicable to the digital world. In 1998, section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was updated to improve accessibility. In essence, the section 508 regulation boils down to this: when the federal government develops, procures, maintains or uses electronic and communication technologies, it must ensure that persons with disabilities have access comparable to what is provided to persons without disabilities. The Section 508 strategy is to gain the purchasing power of the federal government to choose products that are more accessible than those that were less accessible, which would motivate industry to close long-standing accessibility gaps. Assistive technologies for people with disabilities can seem magical in providing access to things that were previously inaccessible. However, if the underlying technologies also play their role in the provision of information and the usability of these assistive technologies, much better accessibility can be achieved. When I started working full-time on accessibility at the IRS in 1999, the team focused on providing adequate IT arrangements, and Section 508 was new. As a former IT professional and internet service operator at the time, I knew that we would need IT professionals to build and buy accessibility, otherwise the gaps would remain permanently open for people with disabilities.
The restructuring of standards and guidelines allows those who determine compliance with Section 508 to evaluate the product or service based on its characteristics rather than the type of product or service. This should reduce confusion about applicable requirements and eliminate repetitive standards and guidelines previously placed in each section to address the same issues in all types of products. In 2001, when the provisions of section 508 of the Federal Procurement Regulations became enforceable, we prepared documents for training across the organization. We worked to create outreach activities for IRS IT staff, training resources for document authors and web developers, testing procedures, and acquisition requirements. Persons affected by digital accessibility may also have heard Article 255 alongside Articles 508 and 504 and assume that they are all from the same law. However, section 255 is a section of the Telecommunications Act 1996, a completely different law from the Rehabilitation Act 1973. Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act 1996 requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Examples of these products and services include wireline and wireless telecommunications equipment such as telephones, pagers and fax machines, and devices with telecommunications functions such as computers and modems. Section 508 was originally added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act 1973 in 1986. The original Chapter 508 dealt with electronic and information technologies in recognition of the growth of this field. The shortcut to this page is www.gsa.gov/section508 I look forward to seeing more and more that my IT – like online conferencing, training or shopping – is simply working and that accessibility issues will soon become unusual temporary errors. Functional performance criteria have been updated and others have been added (e.g.
limited colour perception and range and strength). Functional criteria have also been added in relation to cognitive impairment. The proposed rule had abandoned functional performance criteria for cognitive accessibility, but was later reintroduced into the final rule. However, functional performance criteria should only be applied if a technical standard cannot be met or if no applicable technical standard exists. In addition, there are other functional performance criteria that may also need to be taken into account in the future (e.g. depth perception). In addition, I believe that recent efforts to develop methodologies to be followed by non-technical federal staff when assessing IT acquisitions will yield results as federal organizations choose more accessible products over less accessible alternatives. This will make it clear that accessibility is important in those sectors of the industry that are still up-to-date on this important issue. Understanding what Section 508 is and what it covers is a crucial first step, but when it comes to ensuring compliance, federal agencies and their providers may not be aware of what constitutes accessible ICTs and how accessibility can be achieved. If you fall into this category, the following tips will get you on the right track. It is important to understand section 508 in conjunction with other legislation related to federal disability policy.