Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

What is the Section 508?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that any technology that is used by a federal agency must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. It applies to technologies used by federal agencies and to technologies used by the general population when they interact with a federal agency.

The original Rehabilitation Act

By the mid-1970s, Americans became increasingly aware of the need for laws requiring the accommodation of people with different abilities. The first piece of federal disability rights protection came in 1972 when Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act.

This law was mainly focused on the ways that the U.S. gov­ernment could help disabled Americans. It provided funding for vocational rehabilita­tion services, created federal responsibilities for research and training programs, and assigned federal agencies to coordinate programs for disabled Americans. It had nothing to do with accessibili­ty.

2017: Latest revision of Section 508

On March 31, 2017, the U. S. Department of Education released an updated version of its regulations under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The new rules were designed to ensure that people who use assistive technologies receive equal access to education programs and activities.

Major updates in the new version

By 2017, the W3C had officially adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as the accessibility standards for web content. Most federal websites must comply with these guidelines.

Accessibility. All official agency material that’s aimed at the general public must be accessible in formats that can be read by people who have various types of vision, auditory, and physical limitations.

Synchronization. To ensure compatibility at the core level of technological development, all software and operating system must be compatible with assistive technologies that may be utilized by people with disabilities, including voice recognition technology.

Congress wanted to expand the marketplace for accessibility solutions by incorporating international accessibility guidelines into US government policies.

Differences Between Section 508 and ADA

The Rehabilitation Act was first passed in 1973. It has been updated twice since then. These two amendments require all federal agencies and any organizations that receive federal funds to be accessible to people with physical and mental impairments.

The Americans With Disability Act (ADA) is a law passed by Congress in 1990 that was designed to protect people who have disabilities from discrimination. It covers public facilities including restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, retail stores, banks, hospitals, and government offices.

Both these things relate to accessibility for people who have physical limitations, but they’re different from each other in some ways.

Section 508

Strictly speak­ing, Section 508 is not just a set of rules for govern­ment entities; it also covers any organiza­tions receiving federal funds.

That’s why government-supported institutes like Muse­ums or Universities, Medical Centers that take Medicaid or Medicare, and Programs run by Organizations that are partially federally funded have to abide by §508, a requirement that was tested by Lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT.

Section 508 requires websites that receive federal funding to be accessible to people who use screen readers, which allows blind or visually impaired individuals to access content on the web.

If small business owners want to pursue government contracts or grant opportunities, they need to be aware of these potential pitfalls.

ADA

Unlike Section 508 which only affects public entities, the ADA affects the entire private industry. Examples include restaurants, hotels, theaters, and even doctors’ offices.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), public entities must provide reasonable accommodation to individuals with disabilities who use their facilities. Businesses have to modify their usual practices when providing goods or services to people with disabilities.

It’s become clear through legal cases that in practice, “Reasonable Modification” really means that if the tech exists to make something accessible, then the company must use it.

Businesses must follow Section 508 guidelines when designing websites for people who use screen readers.

Section 508 originally laid out no specific guidelines for web accessibility compliance, but the U.S. Department of Justice has since issued some guidelines.

At the beginning of 2017, Congress passed a law requiring government websites to be accessible to people who use assistive technology (AT).

When it comes to ADA regulations, the situation is less certain. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and several US courts have often cited the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as standards for website accessibility. However, the DOJ declined to adopt the WCAG 2.0 as an official legal standard under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), preferring instead to allow businesses to make their own decisions about what level of access they provide. This flexibility is more a curse than a blessing because businesses aren’t sure what to do to ensure that their sites meet the requirements of the ADA. In practice, however, WCAG 2.1 seems to be the best test of website accessibility for both the ADA and section 508 compliance.

How can you tell if your website is accessible?

Accessible auditing tools are available for free online to check your website’s level of conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG). When using tools like accessScan, you’re presented with a quick snapshot of any issues found by our accessible auditing tool. The scan takes less than a minute, so you get a fast answer to whether your site complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA.

Section 508 lawsuits

There have been a number of Section 508 lawsuits brought against various institutions over recent years which test the application of the legislation in the real world.

NAD vs. Harvard/MIT

The NAD sued two universities arguing that their websites were inaccessible to deaf people. They argued that the universities violated section 508 of the Rehabilitaion Act by not providing captions for their online courses.

The case against Harvard University and its subsidiary MIT has been ongoing for several years now. A Massachusetts judge recently ruled that the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) could proceed with their lawsuit against the two institutions.

NFBS vs. DOE

One year later, the National Federation of Blind filed an administrative complaint against the US Department of Education claiming that its website violated Section 508 because it was not accessible to blind people using text-to-voice software or braille displays.

For example, USA Learns is an educational site operated by the U.S. Department of Education. It emphasizes that any online platform that is funded by the government must comply with Section 508.

Leiterman vs. DHS

A blind lawyer filed suit against the DHS for not providing access to assistive technology so that he could perform basic tasks at work. He claimed that he lost countless hours due to software updates that prevented him from using his computer reading tools, which made it impossible for him to complete his other duties and professional endeavors.

A federal agency was sued for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by not providing the software integration that its disabled worker needed to be able to perform his job.

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