An Introduction to Section 508
- About the history of Section 508 legislation.
- What it means to be "accessible".
- About the accessibility standards.
- About additional reasons to make your website accessible.
Most of you are taking this course to learn what you must do to make your web pages accessible according to the Section 508 standards. In this introductory lesson we will discuss the significance of the Section 508 legislation and what it means for information technology to be accessible.
What is Section 508?
The legislation referred to as Section 508, signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, is actually an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires electronic and information technology developed by or purchased by federal agencies be accessible by people with disabilities.
The 1986 version of Section 508 established non-binding guidelines for technology accessibility, while the 1998 version created binding, enforceable standards that are incorporated into the Federal procurement process.
In addition to providing for enforceable standards, the amended Section 508 established a complaint procedure and reporting requirements, which further strengthen the law.
Contrary to what you may read on the web, Section 508 does not directly apply to private sector web sites or to public sites that are not U.S. Federal agency sites. In fact it doesn't even apply to the Congress or to the Judiciary. It also does not (generally) apply to agencies or establishments using federal funds. So if it does not apply to all these institutions, what's the purpose? Those who crafted the law noted that the combined purchasing power of Federal agencies is tremendous. They believed that if the Federal agencies required accessible IT, then companies would respond by (1) offering accessible IT to the government and (2) rather than have two sets of products, they would offer accessible IT for everybody. At IBM in the late 90's, for example, the decision was made to build accessibility into the entire development process -- company wide. It just didn't make sense to have two sets of products.
While our focus in this course is web accessibility, Section 508 provides accessibility standards for all information technology, including computer software, hardware, and documentation. And, when states wanted to require accessible information technology, they turned to the Section 508 Accessibility Standards to define "accessibility". Check out the ITTATC web site for a survey of state requirements for accessibility, most of which refer to Section 508.
Federal agencies must purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible to employees and members of the public who have a disability, providing that it is not an undue burden on the agency. Thus if two companies are bidding on a government contract and one is offering accessible solutions, then the accessible technology is likely to (should) win the contract.
What Does it Mean to be "Accessible?"
Basically, technology is accessible if it can be used as effectively by people with disabilities as by those without. This doesn't mean that a blind user will complete a task on a web site as fast as one who can see. Listening to a screen reader takes longer than looking at the screen and reading. But the processes must be comparable. How can that definition of "accessible" help a web developer know what to do to make his or her product comply with Section 508? Truthfully, that definition isn't helpful. Developers don't know how people with disabilities use computers. What people? What disabilities? Companies don't have the resources to have all their products tested by people with all disabilities; it is very good to do usability testing with people with disabilities, but hopeless to use such testing as the measure of product accessibility.
Instead, Section 508 required that the Access Board define accessibility through a set of standards. To do that the Board empanelled the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) in October of 1998.
EITAAC was composed of representatives from industry, academics, government and disability advocacy organizations. The group proposed standards for accessible electronic and information technology. The Access Board took the recommendations of the advisory committee and created a "proposed rule" issued by the Access Board on March 31, 2000. After a public comment period a final rule was issued on December 21, 2000. This final rule contains the standards for accessible electronic and information technology that are the heart of the Section 508 enforcement which began in June of 2001.
Standards Make the Job Easier
The final Section 508 rule includes so-called functional standards that require, for example, that there be a way for a person who is mobility impaired or blind to use your product or web site. So as a fall-back position, if the technical standards don't make requirements clear or if new technology is being employed, the functional requirements fill the gap.
The Section 508 technical standards say your web site has to satisfy sixteen specific items for web accessibility. These are specific things you must do during web site development to ensure that a person who is mobility impaired or blind, for example, can use your site.
These standards, which are the basis of this course, do not require that you dumb down your site. Most sites can be made accessible without changing the visual experience at all.
For example, the standards say you must use alternative text for images and use client-side image maps instead of server-side maps. These are fairly simple and clear requirements. They are perhaps the most important, the most frequently ignored, and they have no impact on the way non-disabled users see or interact with the site.
As we have said, in addition to the web, the Section 508 final rule includes specific standards for software, hardware, and telecommunications equipment. The software requirements are relevant to the web today; Ajax is, in effect, creating software on the web. This course will not cover the Section 508 software accessibility standards.
There have been other efforts to establish guidelines for web accessibility, including those by IBM and Microsoft. All of them, including the 508 standards, have drawn on the work of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that has crafted a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
The WAI guidelines are grouped by priority; the priority 1 checkpoints are very similar to those in the final Section 508 rule. In fact, eleven of the sixteen 508 Standards are drawn directly from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, in some cases using language more consistent with regulatory language. Five of the 508 standards do not appear in the WAI checkpoints and require a higher level of access or give more specific requirements. On the other hand, there are four priority 1 WAI checkpoints that were not adopted by the Access Board. The differences between The WAI and Section 508 are discussed in the Access Board document and in Jim Thatcher's side-by-side comparison of WCAG and Section 508.
Other Forces for Accessibility
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The ADA generally requires employers, state and local governments, and public places to offer reasonable services or tools to insure that people are not discriminated against on the basis of disability.
The ADA was written before the Internet was a significant force in society. Many believe that if the law were written today, the web would be included in the class of activities which should be available to people with disabilities. But it was written in 1990, so the issue of the applicability of the ADA to the web is whether or not the web can be considered a "place of public accommodation." Th Department of Justice has written that it considers the web just such a place.
On the legal front, the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL in part based on the interpretation of the web as a place of public accommodation. AOL settled out of court, agreeing to make its web browsing technology accessible. The New York State Attorney General brought an action against Priceline.com (no bricks and mortar presence) and Ramada Inns (focus on physical accommodations) saying that their web sites should be accessible. The companies agreed to make their sites accessible. To date, there has not been a court ruling supporting or denying the concept that the web, like a store or sidewalk or bus, is a place where discrimination against people with disabilities would not be permitted.
However, as you will see, making your web site accessible is a fairly simple process. And doing so increases your market. The number of people who have disabilities worldwide is significant. In America alone, it is estimated that 54 million people have a disability. You may be missing that market segment by not paying attention to accessibility. With advances in medicine and science, and with an aging population, more and more people who have disabilities, even minor disabilities, are using the computer and going to the web. If your web presence is not accessible, those millions will go elsewhere.
Making your web site accessible has other effects besides providing a positive experience for people with disabilities. Here are some other benefits:
- Making your site accessible will improve the performance of your site on smaller devices.
- Improved usability for all visitors. Consistent navigation makes it easier to find desired content quickly.
- Clear navigation and clear content supports people with low literacy levels.
- Captioning is useful for people with hearing impairments, for people in noisy environments, and for those having difficulty understanding the spoken word due to an accent or foreign language.
- Good colour contrast aids people with colour blindness, people using monochrome monitors, and those who prefer to read from printed pages.
- Providing text equivalents (e.g., ALT attributes and captioning), table summaries, and metadata improves search engine listings.
- By using style sheets, colour independence, and avoiding deprecated elements, Web content will be more readily available to changing (and expanding) customer/client base and to any new technologies.
- Web content in alternate formats assists low-bandwidth users.
- Reduced site maintenance. By separating structure and presentation and using style sheets, the look of a site can easily be change by modifying only one file.
- Accessibility solutions, such as cascading style sheets, can increase the speed of file transfer, thereby reducing server load.
- Keyboard commands assists people with limited hand function and those working in confined spaces with little or no room to operate a mouse (e.g., on planes and in cars).
Just as sidewalk curb cuts -- originally intended for people using wheelchairs -- also benefit parents wheeling strollers and individuals on roller blades, accessible web design benefits more than just people with disabilities. Accessibility and usability are intertwined and are equally important.
An Introduction to Section 508 Conclusion
In this lesson of the Accessibility tutorial you have learned about the general nature of the important Section 508 legislation. In the following lessons we will discuss the specifics of making your web page accessible. In the final lesson we will summarize the sixteen Section 508 Standards.