Designing For Disabilities: Section 508 and International Accessibility Compliance For Beginners

Tara Hornor

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Many graphic designers, web developers, or others in the technology and media industries will eventually come across a project that requires compliance with “Section 508″ or other accessibility standards. This term can be quite intimidating for a beginner because of the legal implications often involved. While Section 508 is legally binding only for United States federal agencies or those funded federally, often an organization that provides public services will request a website or software that meets the requirements for Section 508.

What is Section 508?

In 1998, United States lawmakers signed into law the new Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which improved the original Section 508 Amendment that was added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1986. In 2001, even more changes were made. The Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility Standards was published along with amendments to the Federal Acquisitions Regulations (FAR). History and legal logistics aside, these rules and regulations require federal and federally funded agencies to provide people with disabilities easy access to electronic and information technology. Basically, a law was put into place to provide equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Federal employees with disabilities or members of the public using Federal information and technology now have the same access as others.

Why Does it Affect Designers and Developers?

Since Section 508 applies to United States Federal software, hardware, downloads, websites, documents, etc., a designer or developer may come across projects requiring Section 508 Compliance in the brief. Some non-Federal agencies, while not legally required to be 508 compliant, may also request that a project meet these outlines, especially if the agency provides public services or their target market includes a high amount of people with disabilities.

If you have recently acquired a client that is in need of a design that meets Section 508 requirements, don’t be too intimidated. It can sound difficult or scary to learn, but it just requires careful adherence to a set of compliance rules, many of which are already best practices. For instance, web images must have an alternative (“alt”) description that is not too lengthy, doesn’t repeat other text on the page, and accurately describes the image. Certain color requirements have to be followed to make sure that text is readable by people with color blindness or other vision disabilities. The difficult part of following Section 508 requirements is in finding an easy-to-follow list with clear, concise rules.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that Section 508 is the bare minimum for making a document or website accessible to everyone. A diligent designer will also make sure that it is easy to navigate and looks appealing, just as with any other design. So, you may also want to check out the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines. These guidelines are excellent for helping you to create internationally accepted standards for web accessibility.

How Do Designers Make Designs Section 508 Compliant?


Photo Credit: Fey Ilyas via Compfight cc

Section 508 has three main requirements to meet:

  1. Technical – these requirements make sure the coding of a website, software, operating systems, etc. is compatible with assistive technologies.
  2. Functional – these requirements ensure that in addition to the technical coding, the entire system is usable by someone with a disability.
  3. Support – these requirements make sure that support documents and alternative information is also accessible by people with disabilities.

If a project doesn’t meet all three of these requirements, then it is not legally compliant.

The official Section 508 compliance guidelines is available for you to reference if needed. In addition, the following are some excellent resources for quickly learning how to make your document 508 Compliant, including sites that test your work to make sure your project meets requirements:

  • United States Access Board – The Section 508 Standards of this site provides an excellent detailed explanation of the three different requirements we discussed above. The Guide to Section 508 Standards on this site allows you to choose the specific type of technology you are designing and gives detailed explanations and examples of the standards.
  • JimThatcher.com – This site provides an excellent, free course for learning what it means to make website designs 508 compliant. Lots of excellent real life examples are included and explanations are easy to understand.
  • Webucator.com – This site is an excellent source for low cost but thorough training for web accessibility and Section 508. However, they also offer a free tutorial on Section 508 for those who want to learn on their own.
  • SSB Bart Group – Another option for excellent training and classes on accessibility is available through this group, but you can also test your site for accessibility, including if it meets Section 508 standards, for free. They also provide a good explanation of Section 508.
  • HowTo.Gov – For scores of excellent information, visit the HowTo.Gov website, which includes basic overviews as well as tutorials and resources on making sure everything from a website to multimedia is 508 Compliant. You may also want to check out this video on No Fail Accessibility Testing.
  • WebAIM – This site provides a good 508 compliant checklist for HTML, Scripts, Plug-ins, Java, and more. The checklist includes links to further explanation of certain standards.
  • Viget.com – For a basic overview of accessibility and 508 compliance in web design, Viget offers an easy to understand article on the subject. This is an excellent place to start, since it clears up common misconceptions.
  • U.S. HHS – The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services gives an excellent overview of Section 508 as well as step-by-step tutorials and testing.

Know What Training You Need

Your clients that require 508 compliance in their documents, websites, or software will need you to have expertise and experience in complying with 508 guidelines. So, if you want to list Section 508 as one of your skills or proficiencies, you might consider following them even on projects that don’t specifically benefit from or require you to adhere to those accessibility standards for your own edification.

If your clients are ones that aren’t legally required but still want to follow Section 508 standards for accessibility purposes, then you can probably get by with teaching yourself the guidelines and use free testing resources. However, if you are looking at picking up projects for Federal clients, or clients seeking Federal funding, then you probably will need to complete official classes and training just to make sure that you can adequately fulfill your client’s needs.

Do you have any helpful resources for learning Section 508 compliance? How does Section 508 compare to international accessibility standards? Do you find these standards to be tedious and troublesome, or do you think they’re important and overlooked?

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  • Anonymous

    This article is a great read for those who aren’t familiar with Section 508 standards. Accessible electronic documents (aka PDFs), the ones you mention as “support” are definitely growing in use as well, in addition of course to mobile web sites!

  • H.E.A.T.

    Accessibility will always be an important aspect of the web.

    “The responsibility of the advantaged is to aid the less advantaged” is a mantra I try to live by. Web designers, web developers, or whatever are some of the brightest and capable people controlling the web.

    Their combined expertise in creating the web offers a great opportunity that even the medical industry fails to provide: a way for disabled people to feel whole within society.

    We all will become old and lose some of our abilities that we now take for granted. Laying the foundation now can secure a better future for more people.

    I think of the little old lady who sits at home. She is scared to go outside because of the uncontrolled violence and ineffectiveness of the law. Her only means of connecting to other people is via her laptop or desktop.

    I think about the cancer patient who cannot leave his bed. He was once a proud and accomplished teacher. He has so much knowledge to share. His only means of sharing his wisdom is through his network on his favorite social network.

    See, for me, compliance with the law is of least importance when it comes to accessibility. Web…workers…can become heroes to many people by just employing their expertise in looking out for others. This is an honorable task.

    Mother Teresa did it with her heart. Martin Luther King did it with his love. Web workers can do it with their conscience.

  • moretea

    A well-timed article! I’m supposed to be doing a lot of accessibility remediation through the end of the year, and I intend to check out all the given resources.

  • Stephanie Boucher

    Thanks for this introduction, Tara. For those of us living and working in the UK, it would be good to have an equivalent article explaining the law on accessibility here also. Or is it identical to the US situation?

    • Anonymous

      Stephanie, it’s very different in the UK, and then very different again just about everywhere else. While Section 508 is used as a de facto accessibility standard in the US, it actually applies legally only to the procurement processes of federal government departments, agencies and funded bodies. In the UK, the key legislation is the Equality Act, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act in 2010. Not surprisingly, most countries have their own sets of legislation (national, provincial and/or local), guidelines, requirements, timeframes and enforcement. SitePoint would certainly welcome any articles that make sense of it all.

      • Stephanie Boucher

        Here’s an article on the UK position: http://www.out-law.com/page-330. It seems that the requirement for compliance with disability legislation is much wider than in the US, potentially affecting all websites and not just those that are government-related. Cases have been brought against two companies already for failing to make their websites accessible, and more could follow in the future. But as others have said, this is an ethical issue as well as a legal one, and it is one which the web community has been aware of for years. The conscientious web designer is unlikely to get caught out.

  • sfphase3

    Thanks for the post! Section 508 compliance is a must for those receiving government funding. It seems to be as big of a mystery to most contracting officers as it is to awardees.

  • Mark Urban, CDC

    Thanks for the hat tip from HHS!

  • Bernadette

    For contractors like myself who live outside of the United States, we are not at all privy to this. But since most of our clients are from the US, knowing about this law is an advantage.

    Now, when it comes to the Internet being a mass medium, it would definitely pay to be able to reach the widest range of receivers and have the message understood by the most number of people possible–in particular, people with disabilities.

  • jim@jimthatcher.com

    Not just Federal acquisition, but in addition some states (including Texas where I live) have have adopted the 508 Standards. But more important as Stephanie suggests is the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 before the Web was important. The Justice Department has long asserted that the ADA applies to the Web. They were going to draft standards but put that off. I hope that was to await the outcome of the new 508 Standards which should be available soon. California’s version of the ADA (caled the Unruh Act) provides for damages and was the basis of the Target suit and a 6 million dollar settlement..

  • Anonymous

    Agree, Jim. In Australia, the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act also applies to the web. That, with the relatively recent adoption of WCAG targets by our Federal Government and State Governments, is driving action on enforcing accessibility. The common point is that when Government enforces implementation, it starts to be taken seriously by everyone else.