On January 18, 2017, Section 508 was officially “refreshed” by U.S. Access Board. This was a long-awaited and frustratingly delayed update to regulations aimed at improving accessibility in both physical and technology landscapes.  For this post, we'll be focused on the web and technology-specific rules of Section 508.

A very brief history of Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has had accessibility rules in place covering Information and Computer Technology (ICT) since 2000. The U.S. Access Board started working on this refresh in 2008 and issued notices of proposed rulemaking in 2010 and 2011, with the actual proposal being made in 2015. Compliance with the new rules is required for all U.S. government sites on January 18, 2018. That is one year from publishing but after nearly 10 years of work to update the original set of rules—17 years after the first ICT rules were introduced.

What's in the refresh for government websites?

Essentially, the refresh updates Section 508 accessibility requirements for U.S. government websites to meet WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA guidelines. The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are more explicit than the original Section 508 rules even though they were published in 2007. Having the WCAG 2.0 guidelines incorporated “by reference” is important in that the Access Board has chosen—wisely, many might add—to use internationally-accepted guidelines developed by consensus from a broad representation of member organizations.

The original set of Section 508 requirements did overlap with some of WCAG 2.0, but they now get extended to help more people with varied and different needs. For a comparison of requirements between pre-refresh Section 508 rules and WCAG 2.0 guidelines, the U.S. Access Board published a handy Comparison Table of WCAG 2.0 to Existing 508 Standards.

Does this change Knowbility’s approach to work?

Knowbility has been using WCAG 2.0 guidelines in all of our work, so this update doesn't materially change our approach to the work we perform. In fact, Knowbility is a member of the W3C and is an active participant in the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative. What this means is that our dedication to current and future international accessibility standards translates into our education programs and client-facing services. As WCAG 2.1 is emerging, Knowbility will be at the forefront helping designers and developers understand and apply this knowledge to make their work more accessible for all.

How will politics and changing policies affect Section 508?

Trump issued a regulatory freeze after assuming the Office of the President. Uncertainty and speculation ahead of that order may be why the Access Board issued the final rule just ahead of Trump’s inauguration.  Questions we all have include: How can we expect that to impact the implementation of the refresh? Will enforcement activities for accessibility cases be deprioritized under the new administration?
Our hope is that people with careers in the federal government, along with the judiciary branch, will continue to foster the idea that all people are created equal. Accessibility and equal access to technology are essential in today’s world. We're counting on that to continue from those that work for all of us in our government.

What's next?

This update to Section 508 was sorely needed and is certainly a step in the right direction. With WCAG 2.1 guidelines emerging soon, we will need to see a more responsive approach to updating Section 508 to keep up. 17 years is too long to wait.