Section 508 Explained
What Government Contractors Need to Know
The federal government has recently shown a renewed commitment to enforcing Section 508 requirements for agencies. Some of the recent developments include the following:
- In February of 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report on Section 508 compliance, which is the first one in more than ten years. This report demonstrates the government’s increased efforts to enforce digital accessibility at the federal level.
- In December of 2022, congress passed HR 2617, which holds federal agencies accountable for meeting Section 508 requirements. The bill requires agencies to ensure their ICT meets Section 508 requirements and start reporting on compliance within 225 days (by August 9, 2023).
- In June 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that called on federal agencies to assess the current state of digital accessibility in their organizations and develop remediation plans. This order is part of a push for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) in the federal workforce.
What is Section 508?
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) used by the federal government to be accessible to people with disabilities. Enacted in 1998, the law is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and is named after its section number.
Note: There are many terms used to classify technologies, including Electronic and Information Technology (EIT), Electronic Information Resources (EIR), and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The industry generally considers these terms to be equivalent.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) – Information technology and other equipment, systems, technologies, or processes for which the principal function is the creation, manipulation, storage, display, receipt, or transmission of electronic data and information, as well as any associated content.
Examples of ICT include, but are not limited to:
- Computers and peripheral equipment;
- information kiosks and transaction machines;
- telecommunications equipment;
- customer premises equipment;
- multifunction office machines;
- Web sites;
- and, electronic documents.
Section 508 Applicability and Core Requirements
Section 508 applies to all federal agencies, departments, and organizations receiving federal funding or having federal contracts. It sets specific accessibility requirements for EIT, including software, hardware, websites, and multimedia. These requirements are designed to ensure that people with disabilities, such as those with vision or hearing impairments, can access and use EIT like people without disabilities.
At the core of Section 508 is a requirement for covered entities to develop, procure, maintain, or use EIT that ensures employees and the public with disabilities can fully perceive and use the product or service unless doing so would constitute an undue burden.
Technical EIT accessibility has been further codified in a 2017 amendment to Section 508, which now incorporates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 level AA by reference as one measure of accessibility. And finally, Section 508 is both a legal obligation and a technical standard.
As we will see, Section 508 extends other standards and guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines adding gap criteria such as hardware evaluation.
What does a vendor need to know about Section 508 procurement?
Federal agencies must consider accessibility in the procurement of EIT and should only purchase EIT that meets accessibility standards, with exceptions. This requirement is achieved through understanding the vendor product’s accessibility conformance and planning for the product or service inclusion in cases where full accessibility compliance is not achieved.
508 Compliance Considerations During the Solicitation
Purchasers under Section 508 should ask the vendor for an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) based on a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) 508 edition. A VPAT document describes how a product or service conforms to various accessibility standards and guidelines, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the technical standards incorporated into Section 508. A completed VPAT (ACR) is generally required for a vendor to participate in a solicitation.
At this point, we should point out that virtually all products have some degree of accessibility defects. The VPAT review aims to facilitate a structured conversation between the purchaser and vendor so accessibility defects can be assessed. This assessment seeks to identify the product with the fewest barriers and requires the purchasing organization to plan for the product’s inclusion to minimize the impact on people with disabilities.
Understanding Section 508 Compliance Prior to Purchase
Once a purchaser understands the product or service’s accessibility conformance, many avenues can be used to procure the product. The most straightforward is an award to a vendor with a compliant product. If a product or service does not meet the organization’s accessibility requirements, the purchaser must seek to procure under an exception.
Determining Allowed Section 508 Exceptions
Guidelines from the Federal Section 508.gov website maintained by the General Services Administration outline the following ICT 508 Exceptions:
- E202.2 Legacy ICT Exception
- E202.3 National Security Systems Exception
- E202.4 Federal Contracts Exception
- E202.5 ICT Functions Located in Maintenance or Monitoring Spaces Exception
- E202.6 Undue Burden or Fundamental Alteration Exception
- E202.7 Best Meets Exception
In summary, there are ways for organizations under Section 508 to procure inaccessible EIT; however, these additional burdens and procedures will slow the acquisition process and, in many cases, require the agency to create corrective action plans to minimize the impact on employees and the public.
How do you achieve 508 compliance?
The most obvious answer is to comply with the Section 508 accessibility requirements fully. But what does that mean?
5 Steps for 508 Compliance
- Understand the requirements: Familiarize yourself with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and technical components of Section 508. These are detailed in a VPAT and can guide your journey to full compliance.
- Assess your products and services: Conduct a thorough assessment of your ICT products and services to identify accessibility barriers.
- Create an accurate and credible Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) based on a version of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that includes Section 508 requirements. Two versions of the VPAT contain the necessary Section 508 conformance requirements, 508 edition, and INT – International edition. Engaging a third-party audit firm may be a good investment for organizations that are new to public sector procurements.
Develop an accessibility roadmap: Develop a roadmap to address any identified accessibility barriers and prioritize the most critical issues. The roadmap is an essential component to have when talking with purchasers.
- Train staff: Provide training for staff on accessibility requirements and how to design, develop, and maintain accessible ICT products and services.
- Monitor and maintain accessibility: Regularly monitor and maintain your products and services to ensure ongoing accessibility compliance. Your VPAT should be kept up to date as your product improves.
It is important to note that achieving 508 compliance is an ongoing process and requires ongoing attention and commitment to accessibility.
Contact our Accessibility Team
Digital accessibility empowers users with disabilities to independently navigate, browse, use, and otherwise interact with your digital content. Contact our accessibility team today. We’ll help you make sure your website, applications, and digital files comply with accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.0/2.1 or Section 508, enabling people of all abilities to access your content with ease.