About Section 508
In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that help achieve these goals.
The law applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ` 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.
Summary of Section 508 Standards
General (Subpart A)
The standards define the types of technology covered and set forth provisions that establish a minimum level of accessibility. The application section (1194.2) outlines the scope and coverage of the standards. The standards cover the full range of electronic and information technologies in the federal sector, including those used for communication, duplication, computing, storage, presentation, control, transport and production.
This includes computers, software, networks, peripherals and other types of electronic office equipment. The standards define electronic and information technology, in part, as “any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information.“
Subpart A explains what is exempt (1194.3), defines terms (1194.4), and generally recognizes alternatives to what is required that provide equal or greater access (1194.5). Consistent with the law, the standards exempt systems used for military command, weaponry, intelligence and cryptologic activities (but not routine business and administrative systems used for other defense-related purposes or by defense agencies or personnel).
The standards also exempt “back office“ equipment used only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or similar purposes. The standards cover technology procured by Federal agencies under contract with a private entity, but apply only to those products directly relevant to the contract and its deliverables.
An exception clarifies that the standards do not apply to technology that is incidental to a federal contract. Thus, those products that are not specified as part of a contract with a federal agency would not have to comply with the standards. For example, a firm that produces a report for a federal agency under a contract would not have to procure accessible computers and word processing software even if they were used exclusively for the contract; however, compliance would be required if such products were to become the property of the federal agency as contract deliverables or if the federal agency purchased the products to be used by the contractor as part of the project.
Technical Standards (Subpart B)
The standards provide criteria specific to various types of technologies, including:
- software applications and operating systems;
- Web-based information or applications;
- telecommunication products;
- video and multimedia products;
- self contained, closed products (e.g., information kiosks, calculators and fax machines) desktop and portable computers.
This section provides technical specifications and performance-based requirements, which focus on the functional capabilities of covered technologies. This dual approach recognizes the dynamic and continually evolving nature of the technology involved as well as the need for clear and specific standards to facilitate compliance. Certain provisions are designed to ensure compatibility with adaptive equipment people with disabilities commonly use for information and communication access, such as screen readers, Braille displays, and TTYs.
Software Applications and Operating Systems (1194.21)
Most specifications for software pertain to usability for people with vision impairments. For example, one provision requires alternative keyboard navigation, which is essential for people with vision impairments who cannot rely on pointing devices, such as a mouse. Other provisions address animated displays, color and contrast settings, flash rate and electronic forms.
Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22)
The criteria for Web-based technology and information are based on access guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Many of these provisions ensure access for people with vision impairments who rely on various assistive products to access computer-based information, such as screen readers, which translate what’s on a computer screen into automated audible output, and refreshable Braille displays.
Certain conventions, such as verbal tags or identification of graphics and format devices, like frames, are necessary so that these devices can “read“ them for the user in a sensible way. The standards do not prohibit the use of Web site graphics or animation. Instead, the standards aim to ensure that such information is also available in an accessible format.
Generally, this means use of text labels or descriptors for graphics and certain format elements. (HTML code already provides an “Alt Text“ tag for graphics which can serve as a verbal descriptor for graphics). This section also addresses the usability of multimedia presentations, image maps, style sheets, scripting languages, applets and plug-ins, and electronic forms.
The standards apply to federal Web sites but not to private sector Web sites (unless a site is provided under contract to a federal agency, in which case only that Web site or portion covered by the contract would have to comply).
Accessible sites offer significant advantages that go beyond access. For example, those with text-only options provide a faster downloading alternative and can facilitate transmission of Web-based data to cell phones and personal digital assistants.
Telecommunications Products (1194.23)
The criteria of this section are designed primarily to ensure access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This includes compatibility with hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive listening devices and TTYs. TTYs are devices that enable people with hearing or speech impairments to communicate via the telephone. TTYs typically include an acoustic coupler for the telephone handset, a simplified keyboard and a visible message display. One requirement calls for a standard non-acoustic TTY connection point for telecommunication products that allow voice communication but that do provide TTY functionality.
Other specifications address adjustable volume controls for output, product interface with hearing technologies, and the usability of keys and controls by people who may have impaired vision or limited dexterity or motor control.
Video or Multimedia Products (1194.24)
Multimedia products involve more than one media and include, but are not limited to, video programs, narrated slide production, and computer generated presentations. Provisions address caption decoder circuitry (for any system with a screen larger than 13 inches) and secondary audio channels for television tuners, including tuner cards for use in computers. The standards also require captioning and audio description for certain training and informational multimedia productions developed or procured by Federal agencies. The standards also provide that viewers be able to turn captioning or video description features on or off.
Self Contained, Closed Products (1194.25)
This section covers products that generally have imbedded software but often are designed in such a way that a user cannot easily attach or install assistive technologies. Examples include information kiosks, information transaction machines, copiers, printers, calculators, fax machines and similar types of products. The standards require that access features be built into the system so users do not have to attach an assistive device to it. Other specifications address mechanisms for private listening (handset or a standard headphone jack), touch screens, auditory output and adjustable volume controls, and location of controls in accessible reach ranges.
Desktop and Portable Computers (1194.26)
This section focuses on keyboards and other mechanically operated controls, touch screens, use of biometrics form of identification, and ports and connectors.
Functional Performance Criteria (Subpart C)
The performance requirements of this section are intended for overall product evaluation and for technologies or components for which there is no specific requirement under the technical standards in Subpart B. These criteria are designed to ensure that the individual accessible components work together to create an accessible product. They cover operation, including input and control functions, operation of mechanical mechanisms, and access to visual and audible information.
These provisions are structured to allow people with sensory or physical disabilities to locate, identify, and operate input, control and mechanical functions and to access the information provided, including text, static or dynamic images, icons, labels, sounds or incidental operating cues. For example, one provision requires that at least one mode allow operation by people with low vision (visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200) without relying on audio input since many people with low vision may also have a hearing loss.
Information, Documentation, and Support (Subpart D)
The standards also address access to all information, documentation and support provided to end users (e.g., Federal employees) of covered technologies. This includes user guides, installation guides for end-user installable devices, and customer support and technical support communications. Such information must be available in alternate formats upon request at no additional charge. Alternate formats or methods of communication can include Braille, cassette recordings, large print, electronic text, Internet postings, TTY access, and captioning and audio description for video materials.