The roots of Section 508 go back to 1973 – the establishment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – which required unrestricted access to any programs and activities funded by the federal government and its agencies. The Access Board was established to regulate the new requirements, which at the time was primarily for physical access to buildings.
What is Section 508?
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights legislation that requires federal agencies and organizations to make their electronic and information technologies accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. The Section 508 laws were updated in 1998 to include provisions for the growth of the internet and electronic communications in the federal government.
Here is a summary of the law taken from the US Access Board website:
“On August 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, which covers access to federally funded programs and services. The law strengthens section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the Federal government. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information 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 was further updated and strengthened in 2017 with the 508 Refresh, which brought Section 508 requirements to WCAG 2.0 AA level compliance. This much-needed update brought the US government to a level of compliance on par with standards that most other countries had established.
It pushed federal agencies to redouble their efforts to work on their compliance for websites and web content.
How does Section 508 apply to my organization?
Federal agencies are covered under the law and must comply with Section 508 guidelines. But what about the state, local government, or non-profit organizations?
The law has always been a source of confusion, but the basic understanding is that the law covers any organization that receives federal funding.
So, if your state, local government, or non-profit organization receives federal funding, you are likely required to meet the Section 508 guidelines. The same applies to commercial organizations.
Realistically, most organizations will not be held accountable for Section 508 compliance unless they are in a well-established federally-funded program, such as in the Healthcare industry with Medicare programs.
What, however, is much more applicable is ADA compliance.
ADA compliance and demand letters/lawsuits
Most people are familiar with the ADA (American Disabilities Act) and the requirements that resulted in improved access to public buildings. Wheelchair ramps, braille instructions in elevators, crosswalks without high curbs, and many other improvements have helped people over the years to ensure access to “places of public accommodation.”
Unlike Section 508, the ADA is a much broader law that covers all organizations, not just the federal government.
So, if you own a business and your physical place of business is not accessible, you are required under the law to make the changes necessary to ensure you are accessible.
The Department of Justice has been weighing in on the ADA, and while the actual law has not been updated to include “electronic” places of public accommodation, they have been actively pursuing companies and organizations on many levels and in all industries, from state and local government to non-profits and private corporations.
The bottom line is that websites, e-commerce applications, kiosks, or smartphone apps are now considered the equivalent of a physical store or restaurant and must be accessible. The ADA website lists the broad spectrum of current and pending actions to enforce ADA compliance.
How do Section 508 and the ADA apply to PDF documents?
All electronic content is covered under Section 508 and ADA requirements. So, does your website provide a receipt for a transaction? Is that delivered as a PDF file?
If so, that file needs to be made fully accessible.
Fortunately, Allyant has solutions for automated systems that generate invoices, statements, policies, and similar content.
If you have documents like instruction manuals or user manuals as PDFs, those need to be made accessible whether they are generated from automated systems or created as static files.
Either way, Allyant has you covered with our solutions for accessible documents.
While your organization may not technically be required to comply with the federal Section 508 requirements, the federal ADA laws are almost certain to apply to most organizations. The time to get started is now before you get a demand letter.
Allyant can help with a broad range of solutions to ensure and prove your organization is in compliance with the law and, even better, ensure all your clients have access to your services.