Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires government agencies and their contractors to meet specific accessibility standards when creating or procuring digital products. Those standards incorporate most of the requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0.
This makes Section 508 fundamentally different from Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA doesn’t have specific technical standards, although the Justice Department plans on addressing Title II standards in the near future. The new Title II standards are expected to use WCAG 2.1 as a framework.
Put simply, Section 508 compliance is essential for most information and communication technology (ICT) items developed or procured by federal agencies. The law has some exceptions — but they’re extremely rare, and must be correctly identified and documented.
Types of Exceptions for Section 508 Compliance
Broadly, Section 508 applies to all ICT that agencies provide to employees and the public. ICT must be accessible for people with disabilities, and the level of access should be comparable to that available to people without disabilities.
In 2018, a revision to Section 508 introduced most of the Level A/AA requirements (or success criteria) of WCAG 2.0. New ICT must meet these Revised Section 508 standards.
Safe Harbor Exceptions for Section 508 Compliance
A “Safe Harbor" exemption may be available for legacy ICT that was accessible and compliant with the earlier Section 508 standards, which were in place prior to January 18, 2018. To qualify for the exception, the legacy ICT must meet the following requirements:
- The ICT was deployed, altered, or procured within the government on or before January 18, 2018.
- The ICT was accessible and compliant with Section 508 prior to January 18, 2018.
- No changes were made to the legacy ICT affecting interoperability, the user interface, or access to information or data after January 18, 2018.
Of course, most ICT will not meet all of these requirements — and that’s by design. As technologies improve, accessibility needs to be a consistent priority.
Undue Burden Exceptions for Section 508 Compliance
Agencies may also seek an exception if conformance with the Revised Section 508 standards would constitute an “undue burden" or a “fundamental alteration in the nature of the ICT.”
Once again, the bar is fairly high. This exception only applies if conformance would create extraordinary costs — and the agency must still provide an alternative for people with disabilities.
Agencies that seek an undue burden exception must explain the burden in writing. That documentation should be thorough and should include:
- An assessment of the costs relative to resources, if claiming the exception based on expense;
- An assessment of the difficulties in achieving conformance, if claiming the exception based on difficulty;
- An analysis of the features or functions of the ICT that would impose an undue burden.
It’s important to note that the undue burden exception applies on a feature-by-feature or function-by-function basis.
In other words, to claim the exception for an entire ICT product, you’ll need to determine that all of the features of the product could not reasonably conform with the Revised Section 508 standards.
Other Section 508 Compliance Exceptions
Section 508 exceptions may also apply to certain ICT acquired by contractors, ICT utilized in national security systems, and ICT located in maintenance or monitoring spaces. These exceptions are less common than undue burden or safe harbor exceptions, and they require careful evaluation from a program director.
The General Services Administration provides a detailed guide to Section 508 exceptions, which includes decision questions for program directors.
Related: What is "Trusted Tester"?
Digital accessibility isn’t optional, and it’s especially crucial for government agencies
Ultimately, the Revised Section 508 standards apply to most software and systems employed by federal agencies — and even if you qualify for an exception, conforming with the standards may be in your agency’s best interests.
Digital accessibility promotes the best practices of product development. Accessible websites are easier to maintain and serve the needs of a wider range of users. Software built with accessibility in mind tends to be much more robust, and many accessibility improvements can improve the experiences of all users — not just users with disabilities.
And by establishing a clear accessibility policy and regularly auditing your ICT against the latest WCAG standards, you can build towards compliance with future standards (including the upcoming changes to Title II of the ADA).