Why the Section 508 and Section 255 Refresh Had to Happen
Updated: January 4, 2018
The rapidly changing nature of modern technology can create situations where accessibility is neglected, creating many challenges for disability rights advocates.
To help combat these challenges the international standard of WCAG 2.0 was formulated, but in the United States, it wasn’t legally binding for public organizations.
But then came the refresh of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communication Act. On January 18, 2017, the U.S. Access Board released a comprehensive update to address the ever-changing and universal nature of modern technology.
Why update Section 508 standards?
The revised sections 508 and 255 now both legally require compliance with WCAG 2.0 standards as applied to the function of the technology rather than product types, such as computer, mobile, or tablet.
The overarching goal of the refresh is to harmonize standards across different industries and governments in the United States, while affirming global accessibility standards.
The revised section 508 took effect March 21, 2017. The compliance date is January 18, 2018.
The revised section 508 and section 255 appear on the Code of Federal Regulation and Federal Register as appendices.
Section 508 and section 255 are split into appendix A and B, respectively. Appendix A and B include two chapters, application and scoping, which correspond to how the law should be applied. Appendix C is known as the common section, which combines the overlapping areas of both sections: Functional performance, hardware, software, support documentation, and referenced standards.
Key changes and issues from the original 508
There are four key changes to the new Section 508:
- Broad application of WCAG 2.0
- New “Safe Harbor” provision for legacy ICT
- Functional Performance Criteria (FPC)
- ICT with closed functionality
Broad application of WCAG 2.0
Web and covered non-web content must comply with WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA success criteria.
To understand the specific WCAG 2.0 standard that coordinates with the function, you must first find the parent provision under Appendix A or B, Chapter E2 or C2.
Under the provision, you will find where to go in the Code of Federal Regulation, then learn which WCAG conformance applies.
New “Safe Harbor” provision for legacy ICT
The “Safe Harbor” provision says, any information and communication technology (ICT) that meets the 2000 section 508 standards is grandfathered until any change or modification to the user interface has been made to it. If a change occurs, such as the contrast of a document, then the new ICT must comply with the new 508 standards.
Functional Performance Criteria (FPC)
To harmonize with the European Union standards, the Functional Performance Criteria (FPC) was added. The FPC addresses cognitive accessibility, but should only be used when chapter 4 or 5, hardware or software, do not address the function.
ICT with closed functionality
When a product has a closed functionality, this means some assistive technologies are not allowed because they lack a “user agent.” To combat this obstacle, additional measures need to be added to make content accessible on such devices.
The provision for closed functionality can be found under 402 of Section 508. It underlines what must comply and what are exceptions.
Why use WCAG 2.0 for the revised section 508?
WCAG 2.0 was included in the revised section 508 to help universalize and standardize accessibility initiatives in the United States.
Lawmakers found the old section 508 did not harmonize with international standards. The law makers saw the impact and influence it had in Canada and the European Union, and realized it could have a positive impact in the United States as well.
One thing that differs from our neighboring countries though, is the broad application of WCAG to web and non-web content, ultimately helping to create tighter and more complete legislation.
In addition, WCAG 2.0 helped address the gaps in section 508, such as low contrast text, site navigation, fixed size text and meaningful sequence. Unlike WCAG 2.0, the older version of section 508 was ambiguous and untestable.
The compliance date for the revised section 508 and section 255 is January 18, 2018. Before this date, it’s important to become familiar with the WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA standards that apply to your organization.
There are numerous resources provided by the U.S. Access Board and other organizations to help clarify, understand, and comply. Below you’ll find some helpful links to browse, and you can also watch the full webinar, Complying with the Section 508 & Section 255 Refresh with the U.S. Access Board, for a more comprehensive overview.
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