What Does “508 Testing” for Websites Really Mean?

December 14, 2021

Equivalent access is a crucial priority for public websites. 26 percent of US adults live with some form of disability, and every citizen should have equivalent access to publicly funded content. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. 

In 2017, the Rehabilitation Act was refreshed to provide clear technical specifications: All covered websites must conform with the Level A and Level AA success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The final rule went to effect on January 18, 2018, and the law also establishes consequences: Any individual with a disability may file a complaint alleging that a federal department or agency fails to comply with the rule.

Needless to say, regular Section 508 testing is essential. If the Rehabilitation Act applies to your content, you’ll need to find a thorough testing methodology that adequately demonstrates compliance.

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

Automated Section 508 compliance scans have limitations

Automated scanners are a popular option for Section 508 testing, since they’re inexpensive, quick, and intuitive. These tools can find many common WCAG conformance issues including missing image alternative text (also called alt text), poor color contrast ratios, and inaccessible off-page links. However, as the US General Services Administration (GSA) notes, automated scanning tools cannot apply human subjectivity.

That’s a problem, since many WCAG success criteria require human judgment. For example, an automated scanner can find missing alt text, but the tool can’t determine whether alt text is appropriately descriptive for screen reader users. Automated tools can miss major WCAG conformance issues, and some tools may report a high number of false positives. 

Other potential issues with using automated tools to test for Section 508 compliance:

  • Tools will need to be configured to bypass firewalls and to access protected content. In some cases, third-party scanners are not capable of analyzing website content that requires user authentication.
  • Agencies may need to use multiple types of tools to analyze different types of content. Each tool may utilize different strategies for determining compliance. This can create issues when agencies need to collect and analyze the data.
  • Automated tools can’t provide detailed guidance for remediation. Website accessibility requires the correct mindset, and if the reasoning behind remediation tactics aren’t clearly communicated to your team, additional accessibility issues are likely to occur.

 Read: Is Automated Testing Enough for Accessibility Compliance?

Hybrid testing is an effective solution for Section 508 compliance

While automated tools have limitations, they’re still extraordinarily useful in the hands of experienced accessibility experts. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility frequently uses automated scanners during the first phases of our compliance audits — but we validate all issues with human testers. 

Hybrid testing delivers long-term results while limiting the costs of compliance. In an overview of testing methods for 508 conformance, the GSA notes that “a hybrid testing approach is the best solution to handle a large volume of electronic content.” 

Our four-point hybrid testing methodology includes manual testing involving people with visual disabilities, along with thorough issue validation from a subject matter expert (SME) and a senior developer. Crucially, we focus on helping agencies understand the principles of accessibility; our goal is to help organizations meet their Section 508 compliance goals while building a roadmap for long-term success.

Read: A Look at Our Four-Point Hybrid Testing

Creating a long-term Section 508 compliance strategy

Legally, agencies and contractors must comply with Section 508, but while building a conformance plan requires an investment, the benefits of accessibility greatly outweigh the costs. Accessible websites provide a better user experience to everyone, regardless of their abilities, and many of the best practices of website accessibility can reduce the long-term costs of site development. 

WCAG provides a framework for establishing better website development and design practices. To determine whether your website meets WCAG’s Level A/AA requirements, get started with a free Section 508 compliance analysis.

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