Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. Practically speaking, it provides agencies and developers with necessary guidelines for creating accessible software, including; electronic documents, websites and viedeos.
The 508 Refresh is the most recent attempt by the government to guarantee that software and hardware will be accessible as they continue to change and become more complex. It contains two parts; Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that applies to software and a new addition; Section 255 Guidelines of the Communications Act that addresses hardware requirements. This bill is commonly referred to as the 508 Refresh.
According to The United States Access Board (the government organization in charge of writing the bill), “The updated requirements specify the technologies covered and provide both performance-based and technical requirements for hardware, software, and support documentation and services. Access is addressed for all types of disabilities, including those pertaining to vision, hearing, color perception, speech, cognition, manual dexterity, and reach. The Section 508 Standards apply to electronic and information technology procured by the federal government, including computer hardware and software, websites, multimedia such as video, phone systems, and copiers. The Section 255 Guidelines address access to telecommunications products and services, and apply to manufacturers of telecommunication equipment.”
This is exactly the type of policy The Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities intended when they released The Rights of People with Cognitive Disabilities to Technology and Information Access in 2013. This type of policy is particularly important because it recognizes cognitive disabilities (such as Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, severe and persistent mental illness, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities) as a separate community that requires their own set of accessibility features, especially in software. Because individuals with cognitive disabilities have a wide range of unique characteristics, software developers and engineers have struggled with designing and applying standard features that allow this community to experience full access to technology and information. New web page requirements in the 508 Refresh that specifically address areas of concern for individuals with cognitive disabilities include; navigation, time adjustments that allow users enough time to read and use the content, page titles that use general language to describe the topic or purpose and consistent use of icons. These features are designed to promote accessibility, but they also work together to provide all users with a better Web experience.
January 18, 2017 – The Access Board today released a final rule that updates accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) in the federal sector covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The rule also refreshes guidelines for telecommunications equipment subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act.
January 18, 2018 – The final rule becomes enforceable. Most agencies will have a year to incorporate the new rules, unless they are not updating their website.