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 structure

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.

Code of federal regulation Appendix A Section 508. Chapters include E1 application, E2 scoping. Appendix C is the common section between Section 508 and section 255. these chapters include C3 Functional Performance C4 Hardware C5 Software C6 Support Documentation C7 Referenced Standards. Appendix b is section 255 and includes C1 Application and C2 Scoping.

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.

Broad application of WCAG 2.0, Minimum success criteria: Level A and Level AA. The requirements are applied to: Web content: online instructional material, Covered non-web content: instructional material, Software user interface: learning management system.

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.

which wcag 2.0 requirement should i reference? Chapter 1: Application and administration first ask Am I a federal agency? Yes/No next Do I meet the definitions that are in this section? Yes/No, if you've answered yes move on to Chapter 2: Scooping Tells you were to go to look for more technical requirements. Next skip to the chapter referenced to find the URL and/or the mailing address and contact information for that standard. To read the citation, E207.2, know that E corresponds to section 508, a C would indicate section 255. The 2 means chapter number, 7 is section within the chapter and dot 2 is the sub section within the chapter. So this citation would let you to appendix a, section 508, scoping chapter, software section, sub section WCAG conformance.

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.

What’s next?

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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