On December 21, 2023, the Office of Management released a memorandum, M-24-08, directed to all Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies of the U.S. Federal Government that should act as a positive step in helping digital access for people with disabilities living across the U.S.
More specifically, the memorandum’s goal was to help strengthen the implementation of accessibility standards outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is intended to apply to all federal government agencies and technology environments.
In this article, we will break down key aspects of this memorandum and the specific timelines for action outlined within.
Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Role
For background, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) releases memoranda to guide federal agencies on various topics. More specifically, OMB acts as a government agency that serves the President of the United States to oversee the implementation of their vision.
OMB’s defined mission is to assist the President in meeting policy, budget, management, and regulatory objectives and to fulfill the agency’s statutory responsibilities. Relative to this memorandum, it is outlined within that this rescinds all previous memorandum releases by OMB on this specific topic. This is specifically important to note, as the most recent release on this topic was all the way back in 2013.
Who is required to follow this memorandum?
M-24-08, for simplicity’s sake, essentially extends Section 508 compliance and defines a more specific roadmap to conformance. As referenced, this memorandum applies to any federal government agency based on the definition outlined in 44 U.S. Code § 3502.
The code defines an “agency” as any executive department, military department, or government corporation. Review our team’s recent breakdown of this topic for more insight into the historical requirements within Section 508.
What is the memorandum’s main goal?
To best understand the memorandum’s goal for federal agencies – we can reference the title of this blog post: “Strengthening Digital Accessibility and the Management of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.” Full stop, this feels like a solid move to ensure that Section 508 is not just referenced as a goal across federal government digital products but is enforced with a more clearly defined definition for agencies of what this means and how a realistic roadmap can be implemented.
Section 508 requirements have been clear for many years – ensure all digital content and documents comply with WCAG 2.0 AA. Of course, we can debate whether this may be an outdated standard, with WCAG 2.2 released in 2023, but it is still a strong and relevant baseline for conformance.
However, most of us in the accessibility space or people living with disabilities who need to reference federal government systems or documents (either as U.S. Citizens or government employees) would argue the actual tracking and implementation of these requirements has been sporadic and ambiguous at best.
To that end, this release and roadmap from OMB should not only be seen as encouraging by people with disabilities but also long overdue in the sense of driving forward the requirements outlined within Section 508.
As the memorandum outlines, this does not affect a small subset of individuals, which is critical context. I was specifically encouraged to see that not only does M-24-08 define that 25% of U.S. Adults live with a disability (yes, 1 in 4!), but 17% of employees surveyed in 2022 identified as having a disability.
When considering accessibility requirements, many organizations only consider customers (or, in this case, citizens) facing digital properties and documents in their accessibility roadmap. However, for employees to have equitable access under Title I of the ADA and effectively perform their role and duties – especially at the federal government level – it is also critical to ensure employees have the proper resources to perform their job responsibilities, access employee benefits, and all of the like.
In this release, OMB has made it clear that Section 508, and digital accessibility in general, is not only important and required on a public-facing website, for example, but also on internal systems and portals. This sets a strong example for not only federal government agencies but any organization considering a broader accessibility roadmap and the third-party software providers leveraged in these environments – but there is more to come on that front below.
Procuring Accessibility Technology
Our team was particularly excited to see the OMB referenced procurement of accessible technology in their release of actionable steps in late December. This topic is particularly challenging for almost any organization’s accessibility roadmap, regardless of being a federal agency.
Far too many digital accessibility laws and regulations require all technology – including that which is procured – to be compliant with the WCAG success criteria but either (1) do not reference the importance of testing products in the procurement process or (2) do not push any of this requirement to third-party software vendors who build, deploy and largely control all of the accessibility conformance of said products or software.
For this reason, organizations often procure inaccessible technology and only realize this after deployment, meaning citizens, customers, and internal employees are left on the outside looking in. Which, again, is against the law specifically for federal government agencies.
The OMB release outlines excellent resources for ensuring you are asking the proper questions and obtaining documentation from third-party vendors on the level of accessibility of their product or software through the procurement process.
However, I would urge that this is not enough to arm your procurement team effectively with the proper tools they need to make informed and accessible purchasing decisions. In most cases, procurement teams are not accessibility experts – nor should they be expected to be.
Additionally, suppose you do not require or document third-party (neutral) testing of software that includes people with disabilities in the procurement process. In that case, there remains a strong chance that your team will still purchase or deploy inaccessible technology.
Our team has built a detailed procurement support process that your government agency could deploy immediately to make this seamless for your Section 508 manager and procurement team.
Read more about our recommendations and support for procurement accessibility, which is more relevant than ever with OMB’s inclusion of this topic in their December release in this article.
Immediate and Timely Requirements
Another commendable action from OMB within their release to strengthen government-wide digital compliance was the clearly defined timeline of immediate actions they included to help drive urgency among federal agencies. If you are reading about this release for the first time and have not yet taken action, your team is slightly behind, so we’d strongly recommend moving to act on the below requirements outlined in M-24-08!
The specific requirements, provided as a timeline of days from the time of the memorandum release, which was December 21, 2023, are as follows:
- Within 30 Days of issuance: Report to OMB the name and contact information of the agency-wide Section 508 program manager.
- Within 90 Days of issuance: Agencies shall establish (or update if needed) a digital accessibility statement on all agency websites. Our team has a recommended template we help our clients with; please reach out if we could help your agency with this specific requirement.
- Within 90 Days of issuance: Agencies shall establish (or update if needed) a public feedback mechanism for obtaining complaints or reports about accessibility issues with agency websites or digital services and effectively track this feedback. Of course, as a reminder, if you leverage a third-party software or resource for this feedback, it is essential to ensure the software is accessible!
- Within 180 Days of issuance: Agencies shall comprehensively assess agency policies to ensure that ICT accessibility considerations have been incorporated across all relevant agency functions.
Monitor Ongoing Accessibility Compliance
Among many fantastic recommendations with the OMB memorandum for federal agencies, one final point was significant to driving success. This also aligns with our recommendation to every organization we work with at Allyant. That is, the realization that accessibility conformance is an ongoing effort that needs to be continually monitored and maintained.
The OMB team does a fantastic job of outlining action steps for ensuring that digital accessibility conformance is reached in the near term and maintained in the long term to promote technology inclusion truly. This includes the need for ongoing automated testing, with targeted manual testing from people with disabilities as the only true path to creating a conformant and usable environment for citizens and employees living with disabilities.
Next Steps for Federal Agencies
If you are a federal agency looking to ensure you are taking the proper steps to comply with both Section 508 and the clear timelines and details laid out in OMB’s M-24-08 memorandum, I would strongly recommend starting by reviewing the memorandum in full and passing to all key stakeholders internally.
Based on the actions required for compliance, this would likely include not only employees specifically focused on Section 508 compliance but all digital content editors (web and digital documents), IT team members, and even procurement team members to raise awareness within their role of acquiring accessible technology.
If your team is looking for a single-source vendor to drive Section 508 compliance and meet all requirements outlined in the updated memorandum, we would be happy to help! Not only is our Allyant team comprised of niche experts, specifically having deep federal government accessibility experience and roots, but we are also the only vendor in the space that can provide support across your entire customer communication footprint, including websites, mobile applications, employee portals, digital documents, procurement accessibility, and alternative format communications.
Reach out to our team below to map your roadmap to conformance today!