On Jan. 18, the Information and Communication Technology Standards and Guidelines rule was published in the Federal Register, and brought to an end a nearly eight-year process of updating and “refreshing” the U.S. Section 508 Standards.
The Section 508 Standards contain technical criteria and performance-based requirements addressing the accessibility of information technology products and systems, yet due to changes in technology and the emergence of other accessibility standards, both colleges and vendors have struggled with the aging requirements. The updated standards better reflect advancements in information technology, clarify the scope of the rule, and incorporate other commonly used accessibility standards to simplify the technical requirements.
Colleges must recognize, however, that the updated standards do not replace institutional obligations for ensuring access. They are only one facet toward building an accessible web and information technology environment for the entire campus community.
The U.S. Section 508 Standards apply to federal agencies subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in the procurement, development, use or maintenance of information technology resources. Various states, such as California and Texas, have also chosen to adopt these accessibility requirements for state entities. For instance, California Government Code 7405 specifies that state governmental entities shall comply with the accessibility requirements of the Section 508 Standards when developing, using, maintaining or procuring information technology. Vendors are not required to meet the standards (unless covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act), although it is in a vendor’s best interest to consider the standards if they wish to sell to the federal government or state entities, such as public higher education institutions.
EIT Becomes ICT
A major change in the refresh is the modification of the phrase “electronic and information technology” to that of “information and communication technology” (ICT). This is in part due to the Section 508 Standards also updating the Section 255 Guidelines for telecommunications equipment and products. The term information and communication technology now refers to both electronic and information technology content and products as well as telecommunications devices (e.g., VoIP, etc.). Products and content falling under the term ICT include computers, information kiosks, software, websites, telephones, fax machines and electronic documents, among others (see full ICT definition). It is important to note that documents (e.g., PDF, PowerPoint, MS Word, etc.) are referenced specifically as being part of ICT and will be expected to conform to the new standards.
A concern heard over the past few years is which accessibility standard should vendors follow when developing web-based applications and electronic content, and which accessibility standard should colleges use for verifying accessibility. Over the past six years, legal settlements and compliance reviews involving technology access at higher education institutions nationally specified the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Level AA, as the required accessibility standard for web and electronic content. This resulted in confusion with vendors developing web-based systems and providing product accessibility documentation specific to the Section 508 Standards from 2001, whereas institutions were shifting to policies and review procedures in support of the WCAG 2.0, Level AA, criteria.
Incorporating WCAG 2.0
A change to the refreshed Section 508 Standards that should resolve this confusion is the incorporation of WCAG 2.0, Level AA, as the accessibility standard for websites, electronic content and software applications. WCAG 2.0 is used, or referenced, by many countries internationally and contains a substantial amount of best practices, support documentation and techniques. This is a major benefit for vendors as it does not establish a separate accessibility standard to consider and allows developers to continue using existing accessibility evaluation tools developed under WCAG 2.0 in support of the updated Section 508 Standards. Colleges and universities that have already adopted the WCAG 2.0 standard can continue to promote such development and procurement practices and not have to address separate accessibility standards.
The refresh to the Section 508 Standards does not modify a college’s institutional obligations for web and information technology accessibility, but rather updates and expands the technical standards by which access to information and communication technology is measured. While vendors are not obligated to follow the Section 508 Standards, it is necessary that colleges communicate their accessibility requirements and expectations to vendors as well as obtain accurate documentation as to how such products conform. Both vendors and colleges can continue to use the WCAG 2.0, Level AA, standards as these will provide the most consistent set of accessibility criteria as the refreshed Section 508 Standards go into effect.
For more information on the refreshed Section 508 Standards, the Great Lakes ADA Center will be hosting webinars on Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. (Pacific) and Feb. 2 at 11:30 a.m. (Pacific) with representatives from the U.S. Access Board to review the significant changes and answer questions.
Sean Keegan is Director of the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center