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Section 508 Compliance, Explained

Everything you need to know about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and how to make your website and PDFs compliant.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies and their contractors to make information technology (IT) accessible to people with disabilities. Unlike many other digital accessibility laws, Section 508 has clear technical standards.

Below, we’ll provide an overview of Section 508 and offer some tips for building a digital compliance strategy.

What Is Section 508 Compliance?

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Congress passed the amendment to establish technical requirements for making websites, emails, web-delivered documents, and other information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. It’s based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for website accessibility.   

Section 508 applies to all electronic communication including:

  • Every page on every public-facing website.
  • All online forms.
  • All internal and external emails.
  • All software and applications, including mobile apps.
  • All online training resources.
  • All job application pages.
  • All digital files, such as PDFs.

Section 508 Compliance vs. ADA Compliance

Section 508 overlaps with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which also prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. However, there are differences between ADA and Section 508

Section 508 applies to federal agencies and any organization that receives federal funding, including contractors and suppliers. It requires organizations to ensure that all of their digital communications meet Section 508’s compliance levels.

ADA, on the other hand, applies only to private businesses (religious organizations and private clubs are exempt from ADA requirements). Business owners should be familiar with ADA Title III. This guideline requires that businesses classified as “public accommodations” ensure their facilities — including their websites — are accessible to people with disabilities. Title III was supported by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which also affirmed that ADA accessibility requirements extend to online spaces. Failing to comply with the guidelines can result in an ADA compliance website lawsuit — something that can result in expensive legal fees.

What Is a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template?

A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document that demonstrates how products like software, hardware, electronic content, and support documentation conform to the Revised 508 Standards for IT accessibility.

The General Services Administration (GSA) recommends that vendors produce a VPAT for any technology marketed to the federal government, federal employees, and related organizations.

A VPAT should include:

  • An accurate, honest assessment of the product’s level of compliance.
  • Enough details and remarks to provide the buyer with relevant purchasing info.
  • No irrelevant or excessive information.  

Think of the VPAT as a brief but thorough report on Section 508 compliance. It’s highly important for technology procurement — if a federal agency purchases software, a website, or any other digital product, they’ll probably want to review a VPAT outlining the product’s compliance.

Why do Websites Need to be 508 Compliant?

If you work for a federal government agency — or work with a government agency — Section 508 is the accessibility standard you need to follow. 

Section 508 guidelines are updated occasionally to ensure that they’re in line with modern technologies. For example, in 2017, the law received its most recent update, which establishes WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the de facto “rules" for compliance.  

If you’re new to WCAG, here’s a quick overview:

  • WCAG is published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which also publishes standards for HTML, CSS, and other web technologies.
  • WCAG is designed to be technology-independent: Its requirements aren’t specific to a certain technology.
  • The guidelines include simple pass-or-fail statements called success criteria, which can be used to test web pages and content for accessibility. 
  • Those success criteria are organized into three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Most organizations should aim for Level AA conformance, which is what Section 508 requires. Learn more about WCAG levels.
  • Section 508 incorporates WCAG 2.0 by reference. That means that nearly every WCAG 2.0 Level A/AA requirement appears word-for-word in the Section 508 guidelines.

Technology that follows WCAG works better for everyone — including people with disabilities that impact their hearing, vision, cognition, and mobility. 

Every organization has an ethical and legal responsibility to accommodate those users. But following WCAG has benefits outside of compliance: 

  • Websites that follow WCAG provide a better experience for all users. That means better word of mouth and more engagement.
  • The best practices of accessibility are in line with the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO).
  • Prioritizing inclusivity and usability can help businesses improve customer and employee retention rates.
  • Accessible design prioritizes clean code and markup. That can mean lower long-term costs for website development and maintenance.

If section 508 does not apply to your organization, you should still strive for the minimum level of accessibility. Not doing so can result in potential legal repercussions, including lawsuits or hefty fines. Additionally, poor accessibility can negatively impact your audience engagement and even send customers into the arms of your competitors.

Does Section 508 Apply to My Business?

Technically, Section 508 only applies to federal agencies and their contractors — but it’s also applicable to other types of organizations under certain circumstances.

In addition to federal agencies, Section 508 can apply to:

  • State, county, and municipal authorities that receive financial assistance from the US government. For example, a state disaster relief allocation agency may need to comply with Section 508.
  • Universities, museums, galleries, medical centers, and other organizations that receive federal funding.
  • Any contractor — regardless of size or services offered — that wants to work with the US government. For example, a web development firm that creates a website for a federal agency may need to prove that the website complies with Section 508.

There are some listed exceptions for Section 508 compliance. For example, technology operated by agencies as part of a national security system is not covered.

The law also makes an exception if conformance would impose an “undue burden” or require a “fundamental alteration” of functionality. For example, suppose an agency uses legacy billing software that fails to meet Section 508 standards. In that case, the agency may be able to prove that upgrading to compliant software would be too expensive and time-consuming. However, they would need to show that they’d purchased the software before 2017 when the Section 508 standards were updated. 

These types of exceptions are rare. When they occur, organizations are still required to give people with disabilities another way to access information and services.

What Are the Section 508 Compliance Requirements?

Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 contains clear accessibility standards developed by the U.S. Access Board.

In 2017, the board incorporated WCAG 2.0 into its Section 508 Standards. The current standards explicitly require agencies to meet WCAG’s Level A and Level AA guidelines. Level A and Level AAA are considered to be “reasonably accessible” standards for most people with disabilities. Both address barriers that impact a wide range of users with varying disabilities. This includes individuals who use screen readers (software that outputs text as audio or braille) and other assistive technology (AT).

You can read more about specific WCAG 2.0 requirements in our post “Understanding WCAG 2.2”.

How to Make Your Website Section 508 Compliant

For federal agencies, Section 508 compliance isn’t optional. And even if your organization does not receive federal funding — or doesn’t bid for federal contracts — you still have a legal responsibility to provide an accessible website and other digital materials.

Fortunately, accessibility is achievable. To get started, you’ll need to set a goal. For Section 508 compliance, organizations must meet all WCAG 2.0 Level A/AA success criteria. However, the best practice is to follow the latest version of WCAG; currently, that’s WCAG 2.2.

WCAG provides guidance for finding (and fixing) common accessibility barriers such as:

  • Poor keyboard accessibility. Many people rely solely on a keyboard to access the web. When content is not fully operable with a keyboard, these users may be left out. Learn more: Making Accessibility Visible Part 5: Keyboard Focus and Dialog Behavior.
  • Missing alternative text (alt text) for images. Descriptive alt text benefits everyone, but it’s especially important for people who use screen readers to browse the internet. Learn more: Image Alt Text: What It Is and Why It Matters for Accessibility.
  • Missing captions for multimedia content. Accurate captions improve experiences for people with hearing disabilities. Learn more: Video, Audio, and Image Accessibility
  • Strict time limits. People with disabilities may need more time to complete tasks, so time limits should only be used where necessary. Users should be able to adjust, extend, or turn off the time limits wherever possible. 
  • Low-contrast text. Poor color contrast impacts users with color vision deficiencies (CVD) and other vision disabilities. Learn more about accessible colors or test your content with our color contrast checker.
  • Flashing or flickering content. Flashing content can be distracting, and it’s potentially dangerous for users with photosensitivity disorders.

These are just some of the criteria highlighted in WCAG that make your website Section 508 compliant. For additional information, read: Section 508 Compliance Checklist for Websites and PDFs.

What’s the Risk of Non-Compliance?

Non-compliance with Section 508 isn't just a regulatory oversight; it carries substantial legal and reputational risks. 

There have been several high-profile lawsuits, including:

Accessibility lawsuits are time-consuming and costly. They also create bad press that can damage organizational reputations. 

In addition to reducing legal risk, complying with the requirements of Section 508 can help organizations offer an improved user experience to employees and the public — and deliver digital information to the widest possible audience.

Maintain 508 Compliance with AudioEye

To earn — and maintain — Section 508 compliance, you need a long-term strategy. And it starts by testing content against WCAG regularly, then remediating issues that could impact your users. 

AudioEye can help. Our Digital Accessibility Platform combines powerful automation with expert human guidance, providing a path to long-term digital compliance.

Features of our platform include: 

  • Automated testing for hundreds of accessibility issues, carried out instantly for each new user. 
  • Automated remediations for many accessibility barriers.
  • Guidance for carrying out custom remediations, with 24/7 access to US-based accessibility experts.
  • Active monitoring technology that shows your current level of accessibility.

To learn more about AudioEye, get started with a free website scan or book a demo.

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