Accessibility: Sec. 508
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Prior to 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act provided voluntary guidance regarding the accessibility of federal IT. [Access Board Questions and Answers para. 5] As with other guidance in the voluntary category, its effectiveness was somewhat restrained.
That changed. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 contained an amendment to Section 508 that transformed it from voluntary to obligatory. [Fed. Reg.] [Thatcher] That got attention. Now Section 508 requires federal agencies and the Post Office to "develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology" that is "accessible to people with disabilities, unless it would pose an undue burden." [36 CFR s 1194.1] [FAQ Q. 5] [Fed. Reg.] Pretty much anything the government uses must be accessible. Also, anything anyone wants to build for or sell to the government must be accessible. In addition, federally employees whose job function requires access to information technology must be provided with appropriate technology to facilitate accessibility. [29 USC Sec. 794d] [36 CFR Part 1194] [ See also ADA Title I] If an agency thinks that accessibility might in fact cause an undue burden, that agency faces a mound of paperwork in which it must justify its conclusion and also provide the information in question via alternative means.[36 CFR s 1194.2] [Fed.Reg.] Section 508 is designed for the benefit of federal employees and members of the public seeking to federal information. Given the vast number of IT companies bidding for and fulfilling government contracts, and given the impact that government procurement can have on the market, this is no small obligation.
There are a few exceptions to Section 508. [FAQ Q. 12] It occurred to Congress that things that go boom really don't need to be made accessible to the disabled. If the military wants go built a million dollar missile, whose purpose it is to turn-on once, fly across the sky, and then be obliterated into very tiny pieces, there is probably no need to provide a braille interface with that missile. Thus, pursuant to Section 508, the following systems need not be made accessible: military command, encryption, weapons, and intelligence. [36 CFR s 1194.3.] [Sec. 508 Summary Subpart A] [Fed.Reg.] [29 USC Sec. 794d]
In addition, when accessibility would require a "fundamental alternation" of the product, turning it into something that it was not, this too is an exception. The example here is a pocket-pager. Adding a large display to a pocket pager in order to make the screen readable to those with visual disabilities would mean that it is no longer a "pocket pager." This is a fundamental alteration and it is not required. [36 CFR s 1194.3(e)] [Fed.Reg. Subpart A]
A few things that Section 508 does not cover. Section 508 does not cover back office equipment - in other words, equipment in inaccessible locations that is generally used only be service maintenance staff. [36 CFR s 1194.3(f)] [Fed.Reg. Subpart A] Section 508 does not cover the recipients of federal funds. [FAQ Q. 12] [Thatcher Sec. 1.1] [See Education] Section 508 also does not cover incidental IT that a contractor may use in order to fulfill a government contract. Saying it a different way, if a contractor is hired to build a federal website, then the website must comply with Section 508 but the equipment that the contractor uses to build the website need not. [36 CFR s 1194.3(b)] [Fed.Reg. Subpart A] Finally, Section 508 does not require superfluous accessibility. Not every desktop computer needs a braille reader; however, every desktop computer should be compatible with a braille reader should one need to be installed. [36 CFR s 1194.3(c)] [DOJ Summary]
Section 508 covers all IT: photocopy machines, desktop computers, Internet resources, and more. Given the scope of this book, we will look only at the guidance for Internet resources (in other words, do not forget that the other stuff is out there).
As with all laws, the law was a broad stroke description of policy that some federal agency would be left to interpret and implement. The task of implementation was left to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (a.k.a. Access Board) and the rules that they created can be found in title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulation, Part 1194. The rules that the Access Board developed paralleled close to, although not exactly, the work of the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Accessibility Initiative. [36 CFR § 1194.22 (note)] [Fed.Reg. Subpart B] [Sec. 508 Summary Subpart B] [Thatcher Sec. 1.3] Of course, this creates a peculiar scenario where Internet resources could be judged to be accessible by one set of standards but not accessible by another. The creation of inconsistent standards between bodies did not necessarily please everyone.
Nevertheless, tracking the standards of the W3C WAI, the Access-Board in its final rule indicated that a website would need to comply with the following 13 items in order to be considered accessible:
- A test equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).
- Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
- Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
- Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
- Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
- Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
- Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
- Markup shall be used to associate data cells and headers cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
- Frames shall be titled with test that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
- Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
- A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
- When pages utilize scripting languages to display context, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
- When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with § 1194.21(a) through (l).
- When electronic forms are designed to be completed online, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and clues.
- A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
- When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.
[36 CFR § 1194.22]. Unlike the ADA , Section 508 is not enforceable by the Department of Justice. Instead, aggrieved parties may complain directly the federal agency in question. Aggrieved parties also have the right to initiate litigation. [DOJ Summary(citing 29 USC s 794d(f))].
US Dept Education: Requirements for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology Design (Feb 1, 2001) A WEB ACCESSIBILITY EVALUATION AND REPAIR TOOL WITH APPLICATION TO SECTION 508 STANDARDS WEBAim Section 508 Accessibility Checklist Government Computer News 508 Center
Section 508 Web Standards and WCAG Priority 1 Checkpoints A Side-by-side Comparison