Why Section 508 Compliance Matters (and How to Get It Right)

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The internet serves as a great equalizer. Since its inception, the web has removed barriers to information and resources that expand horizons, connect people and provide instant access to new opportunities.

Legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 are designed to democratize the internet by keeping information accessible to all users, including those with visual or mobility impairments.

Every digital entity must meet 508 compliance standards, though many brands aren’t sure whether their content is up to snuff.

First, What Is 508 Compliance?

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 first introduced guidelines for document accessibility. Section 508 was amended to the Act to specifically address substantial shortcomings in digital information technologies on computers and, in 1998, the internet.

The Rehabilitation Act and its subsections apply only to information stored or distributed by federal agencies or certain federally funded organizations. It does not apply to privately owned digital properties.

508 Compliance vs. ADA Compliance: What’s the Difference?

Both Section 508 and the ADA protect the rights of people with disabilities, but they aren’t quite the same.

Section 508 applies to:

  • Federal agencies or organizations that receive federal funding, which includes many schools, universities, and non-profits.
  • Websites, videos, PDFs, emails and website applications published by said agencies or organizations.
  • The ADA applies to:
  • Private companies or NGOs that do not receive federal funding.
  • Their digital properties, with dozens of additional requirements on physical spaces, such as wheelchair accessibility.

Because the ADA covers so much, it may not be surprising that it’s a little thin on web-specific guidelines. Digital ADA compliance is largely predicated on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

Your 508 Compliance Checklist

The most recent update to Section 508 expanded the definition of accessibility, pushing federal agencies and federally-funded organizations to improve accessibility for PDFs, audio and video content and social media posts.

Keep in mind, the following is a summary of major points in Section 508 at the time of this article’s publication; this information is not intended as legal advice or as a replacement for the official policy.

If your agency, business, organization or institution needs to be in compliance with Section 508 rules, your digital content must …

  • Provide alternative text for images, graphics and video.
  • Provide transcripts or alternative content for video and audio content.
  • Provide captions on videos.
  • Utilize high-contrast text and background colors.
  • Define the web page’s default language.
  • Allow users to stop, pause or hide any moving page elements.
  • Avoid any flashing elements that could cause seizures.
  • Allow for single-key shortcuts to navigate the site. (They should include at least two keys, such as CTRL + F.)
  • Include additional non-visual error codes that screen readers can read.
  • Include a clear heading structure.
  • Have clear, instructional page titles.
  • Include descriptive text on all page links and images.
  • Use PDFs that can be read by screen readers.

Meeting these compliance standards can be a big lift. Start by running through a quick audit and identifying elements you’re familiar with. Once you know you need more help, get in touch.

Organizations that fall under Section 508 must ensure compliance and “show their work” with a VPAT, or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. This document assesses and discloses the accessibility of your digital content according to the WCAG’s three-tier scale:

  • A – Elementary conformance (the bare minimum)
  • AA – The standard level of 508 and ADA compliance
  • AAA – Above and beyond (and the hardest to attain)

Some organizations can assess their site and fill out a VPAT themselves, but working with a web accessibility expert reduces the risk of error.

Is there a 508 compliance checker?

There are some automated tools, but most require at least some manual input. Many agencies and organizations prefer to work with a specialist vendor (hey!) to make sure their content meets requirements.

Build a More Inclusive Internet with Oneupweb

Regulations like Section 508 and the ADA aren’t just boxes to check; they’re the right thing to do. We believe strongly in building and maintaining an inclusive internet that removes barriers for users of any ability. For over 25 years, we’ve put accessibility first. Get in touch or call (231) 922-9977 today to get started.

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