All About the Latest Section 508 Requirements for Government Websites
Effective March 21, 2017, the latest updates to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 went into effect, impacting the design and management of many federal and local government websites. If you are currently utilizing our CivicEngage® content management system (CMS), know that our platform, ongoing enhancements, and internal experts, will serve as a functional foundation for your compliance strategy. Read on to learn about the latest requirements and how they will impact the ongoing equitable communications of your local government so that you can plan your compliance strategy.
Bonus: For more information on the latest updates to Section 508 Compliance Standards, view a recording of our recent webinar.
Background: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that state and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities, or would impose an undue burden. This means that local governments are required, and expected, to ensure all their digital content is accessible by citizens with visual, auditory, and other physical limitations and disabilities.
Section 508 Standards were created by The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) and first published in 2000 in the Federal Register. These Standards apply to electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by federal agencies. They contain technical criteria specific to various types of technologies and performance-based requirements which focus on functional capabilities of covered products. It is important to note that Section 508 Standards apply not only to web page content, but to posted content such as PDF documents, and audio and video content. Such requirements ensure that all web content, regardless of the medium, are accessible by all citizens.
Updates to Section 508
The Access Board has revised, and updated, its standards for electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by Federal agencies covered by section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While the final rule is effective March 21, 2017, compliance with the section 508-based standards is not required until January 18, 2018.
The revisions and updates are intended to ensure that information and communication technology covered by the respective statutes is accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities.
A Note About Section 255
The Board’s final rule also updates guidelines for telecommunications equipment covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended. The Section 255 Guidelines, which the Board initially published in 1998, cover telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment, including telephones, cell phones, routers, set-top boxes, and computers with modems, interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol products, as well as software integral to the operation of telecommunications function of such equipment.
Major Changes to Section 508
The latest changes to Sections 508 and 255 include:
- A restructuring of the section provisions by functionality instead of product type due to the increasingly multi-functional capabilities of information and communication technology (ICT).
- Incorporating the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by reference and applying Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements to websites, as well as to non-web electronic documents and software.
- Specifying the types of non-public facing electronic content that must comply; requiring that operating systems provide certain accessibility features.
- Clarifying that software and operating systems must interoperate with assistive technology (such as screen magnification software and refreshable braille displays).
- Addressing access for people with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities.
- Harmonizing the requirements with international standards.
The final rule incorporates a number of voluntary consensus standards, including WCAG 2.0. Issued by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, WCAG 2.0 is a globally recognized, technology-neutral standard for web content. The final rule applies WCAG 2.0 not only to web-based content, but to all electronic content. WCAG 2.0 addresses new technologies and promotes international harmonization as it is referenced by, or the basis for, standards issued by the European Commission, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, and France.
WCAG version 2.0 is a stable, referenceable technical standard for government website designers. WCAG 2.0 includes12 guidelines that are organized under four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For each guideline, there are testable success criteria identified at three levels: A, AA, and AAA.
Understanding the Historical Differences between WCAG and Historical Section 508
It’s important to understand that Section 508 and WCAG previously represented separate guidelines. WCAG was considered to represent a higher, more explicit level of accessibility than Section 508. While there was some overlap in the recommended criteria outlined by both, they did both offer separate recommendations and requirements. More specifically:
- Of the 38 WCAG 2.0 A & AA success criteria:
- 22 were phrased differently but equivalent to current Section 508 criteria
- 16 were not included or equivalent to Section 508 standards
Content Type Requirements
Like the original 508 Standards, the latest updates apply to a federal agency’s full range of public-facing content, including websites, documents, media, blog posts, and social media content. The rule also specifies that the following types of non-public-facing content must comply with the latest requirements:
- Emergency notifications
- Initial or final decisions adjudicating administrative claims or proceedings
- Internal or external program or policy announcements
- Notices of benefits
- Program eligibility
- Employment opportunities or personnel actions
- Formal acknowledgements or receipts
- Questionnaires or surveys
- Templates or forms
- Educational or training materials
- Web-based intranets
Timeline for Compliance
Federal agencies and contractors covered by Section 508 are not required to comply with the updated 508 Standards immediately. Rather, relative to all non-procured ICT, federal agencies and contractors must comply with the updated 508 Standards beginning on January 18, 2018. Until January 18, municipalities should continue to adhere to the original 508 Standards.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
While your top priority is undoubtedly the equitable access of content by all your citizens, it’s important to understand that local governments that fail to comply with 508 Standards could face a financial penalty.
CivicEngage and Section 508 Compliance
Over the years, our CivicEngage website designers have closely monitored, and voluntarily complied with, WCAG when designing local government websites on behalf of our clients. Our best practices have historically included code-base updates and content standards that reference WCAG 2.0 A and AA. Now that WCAG 2.0 A and AA standards are required for compliance under Section 508, our team of experts remain prepared to offer guidance and continue to implement civic websites to the highest quality accessibility standards.
For more information on the latest updates to Section 508 Compliance Standards, view a recording of our recent webinar.
CivicPlus and AudioEye: Enabling Automated Compliance
To help its local government clients ensure ongoing accessibility compliance, CivicPlus has partnered with AudioEye, Inc. to provide enhanced ADA-related digital accessibility capabilities . AudioEye offers industry-leading software that enables public and private sector entities to make their content more consumable through technology. The AudioEye technology platform monitors websites as they grow, automatically fixing issues to ensure accessibility to individuals using a range of assistive technology.
To determine if your civic website meets the latest accessibility requirements, or if modifications are required to ensure compliance, click below to download our local government accessibility checklist.