Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project

Accessibility: Sec. 508

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- Accessibility
- Sec 504
- Sec 508
- FCC Sec 255
- Education
- Assistive Tech Act 
- Accessible Design
- Accessibility Law Chart

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:

[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))].

Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended


"On December 21, 2000, the Access Board released final standards for accessibility of federal technology.  "These standards, the first of their kind in the Federal sector, cover various means of disseminating information, including computers, software, and electronic office equipment. They provide criteria that spell out what makes these products accessible to people with disabilities, including those with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments. The Board developed these standards under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended by Congress in 1998. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use such technology.  Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it does not pose an "undue burden." The law directed the Board to develop access standards that are to become part of the Federal government's procurement regulations.  The scope of section 508 and the Board's standards are limited to the Federal sector.

"The new standards provide technical criteria specific to various types of technologies and performance-based requirements, which focus on the functional capabilities of covered technologies. Specific criteria cover software applications and operating systems; web-based information or applications; telecommunications functions; video or multi-media products; self contained, closed products such as information kiosks and transaction machines, and computers. Also covered is compatibility with adaptive equipment people with disabilities commonly use for information and communication access.

"The standards are based on recommendations from an advisory committee the Board established for this purpose. The Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee was composed of 27 members representing industry, various disability organizations, and other groups with an interest in the issues to be addressed. The Board published the standards in proposed form on March 31, 2000 and made them available for public comment for 60 days. Over 100 individuals and organizations submitted comments on the standards. Comments were submitted by Federal agencies, representatives of the information technology industry, disability groups, and persons with disabilities. The Board finalized the standards according to its review and analysis of these comments.

"The final standards, which will become part of the Federal procurement regulations, will help Federal agencies determine whether or not a technology product or system is accessible. Section 508 uses the Federal procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the Federal government is accessible. The law also sets up an administrative complaint process which becomes effective 6 months from publication of the Board's standards."  Access Board 508 Final Website December 20, 2000

  • Final Standards (HTML)TextPDF 
  • 36 C.F.R. 1194
  • Summary of the Standards (HTML
  • Regulatory Assessment (HTML) PDF 
  • Background 
  • Statute: SEC. 508. Electronic and Information Technology
  • Related Websites on Communication and Information Technology and Disability Related Organizations 
  • Fed Reg Notice of NPRM
  • US DOJ Sec 508 Webpage
  • Section 508
  • US Access Board Telecommunications and Information Technology 
  • FCC Sec 508 webpage
  • Accessibility Forum

  • US Dept Education: Requirements for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology Design (Feb 1, 2001)
  • WEBAim Section 508 Accessibility Checklist
  • Government Computer News 508 Center
  • Law




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