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Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Web Accessibility

Mar 15, 2024

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides accessibility standards for the development, procurement, maintenance, or use of information and communication technology (ICT). Essentially, it requires that U.S. federal agencies make their websites, web-delivered documents, and other electronic communications accessible for people with disabilities. 

If you’re part of a federal agency — or a contractor for a federal agency — you need to comply with Section 508. Below, we’ll answer some common questions about the standards and provide tips for testing your content.

What does Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act require for websites?

The Section 508 standards are nearly identical to the Level A/AA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0. Published by the World Wide Web Consortium, WCAG is the global standard for online accessibility and the basis of many international digital accessibility laws. 

It’s worth noting that Section 508 became law in January 2018 — since then, WCAG has received several updates. To provide the best possible experiences for users (and to improve compliance with other non-discrimination laws), the best practice is to follow the latest version of WCAG. Currently, that’s WCAG 2.2.

Related: WCAG 2.2 Is Here (Finally): 4 Takeaways

What types of accessibility barriers does Section 508 address?

Digital accessibility is about improving online experiences for as many users as possible; it's not just for people who are blind or Deaf. To that end, WCAG contains straightforward guidance that addresses a wide range of accessibility barriers:

  • Low-contrast text, which may be difficult to read for users with color vision deficiencies or other vision disabilities. 
  • Missing alternative text, which can make visual content less useful for people who use screen readers.
  • Keyboard accessibility issues impact people who use a keyboard alone (with no mouse) to browse the web. 
  • A failure to specify the language of an HTML page, which can prevent screen readers from presenting content in a way that makes sense.  

In total, WCAG 2.0 contains 61 success criteria, pass-or-fail statements that can be used to test content for accessibility. Most of those criteria appear word-for-word in the Revised Section 508 standards. 

Related: What Webmasters Should Know About the U.S. Rehabilitation Act

Does Section 508 apply to PDFs and web-delivered documents?

Yes! Section 508 certainly applies to PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and other web-delivered documents. 

Unfortunately, most government agencies fail to make their PDFs accessible for users with disabilities. In a 2023 analysis performed by the Department of Justice, only 20% of government agency PDFs were fully conformant with Section 508. 

Related: 6 Common PDF Accessibility Mistakes

How is Section 508 compliance different ADA compliance?

Like the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA applies to government agencies, while Title III applies to “places of public accommodation,” including most private businesses.

While both laws require digital accessibility, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act have several crucial differences:

  • The ADA does not explicitly require accessible websites, mobile apps, or other ICT. However, according to the Justice Department and numerous court decisions, the ADA still applies online.
  • The ADA does not currently include technical standards for websites or other ICT (which may change in the near future). Section 508 defines clear standards.
  • The Rehabilitation Act has a narrow scope: It applies only to agencies that receive federal funding and their contractors. The ADA applies to virtually every organization in the United States.
  • The U.S. government has a standardized testing process for evaluating 508 compliance. Learn about the Trusted Tester Program.

Following WCAG can improve compliance with both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. 

Related: Is ADA Compliance the Same as 508 Compliance? (AudioEye)

Does Section 508 apply to private businesses?

Section 508 does not directly apply to private businesses. It may, however, impact contractors that work with federal agencies. 

For example, if your business intends to sell software to government agencies, you may be asked for a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template). The VPAT is a document that provides a comprehensive analysis of a product’s conformance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Learn more: What Is a VPAT and How Is It Used?

If your business does not work with government agencies, Section 508 is less important. However, you still need to comply with the ADA — and since the Justice Department has identified WCAG as a reasonable standard for ADA compliance, you still need to follow the same standards when developing your content.

Are there exceptions for Section 508 compliance?

Yes, but those exceptions are extremely limited. The most common is the “Safe Harbor" exemption, which applies to legacy ICT that was “deployed, altered, or procured within the government" on or before January 18, 2018. 

The Safe Harbor exemption is only available if the legacy ICT has not been changed since 2018. In other words, if you’ve updated your software in any meaningful way since that date, it must meet the revised Section 508 standards.

By design, Section 508 exemptions are rare. To learn more, read: What Are Exceptions to Section 508 Accessibility Requirements?

How can I test my website for Section 508 compliance?

It’s important to think of digital accessibility as a set of priorities — not as a one-and-done project. 

For the best possible results, you should regularly audit your content against the latest version of WCAG. Here are a few tips for creating a sustainable testing strategy:

  • Automated tests can find (and in some cases, automatically fix) many accessibility issues. However, some barriers require human judgment; a hybrid approach is widely considered to be the best path to compliance. 
  • Perform tests regularly. At minimum, we recommend performing basic accessibility audits every 4-6 months. AudioEye’s solution tests content as the page loads, providing a realtime snapshot of your current level of accessibility. 
  • Build for accessibility. When designers, developers, and other members of your team treat accessibility as a priority, you’ll spend less time on remediations — and build content that works for a wider range of users.
  • Publish an accessibility statement. Section 508 requires that federal agencies provide digital accessibility statements, and the General Services Administration provides guidance for writing an accurate statement.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility and AudioEye can help you build a long-term, sustainable solution for Section 508 compliance. To learn more, get started with a free Section 508 conformance analysis or send us a message to connect with an expert.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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