Key Features of the Section 508 Refresh

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As announced earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the US Access Board’s final rules updating the standards for ICT covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as guidelines for Section 255 of the Communications Act. The updates make long-awaited changes to the federal digital accessibility requirements.

The Section 508 refresh is expected to be published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017, with an effective date of one year after the publication date. A safe harbor will exist for information and communication technology (ICT) that meets the current Section 508 standards.  After the effective date, when a substantive change has been made, that portion of the ICT will then have to meet the refreshed Section 508 standards. Thus, the current Section 508 standards will still be relevant for existing ICT that has not been updated.  The exact determination on what equals a substantial change has yet to be determined and should be ironed out with the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) updates that will address how the standards are incorporated into the federal procurement process.

The Section 508 refresh brings harmonization with international standards, most notably the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), which is incorporated by reference.  This means WCAG 2 Level A and AA success criteria are used to measure compliance of documents, web content, and software (when applicable) for Section 508. In addition, for software and mobile apps, the W3C note Guidance for applying WCAG to Non-web ICT needs to be taken into consideration when determining compliance to Section 508. Functional Performance Criteria are generally consistent with past guidance with some updates and new functional criteria have been added for cognitive accessibility.  The proposed rule had dropped the functional performance criteria for cognitive accessibility, but it was later added back in to the final rule.  However, the functional performance criteria need only be applied when a technical standard can’t be met or when a there is no applicable technical standard. Rules for real-time texts have been marked as reserved and are not required in this refresh of the standards. However, the Access Board can update standards later to include real-time texting.

The Section 255 guidelines that are part of the refresh will be effective 60 days following publication. However, the guidelines in Section 255 are not binding, but may be adopted by other agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  In addition, during the Access Board’s briefing on the final rule, it was indicated that the requirement that manufacturers consult with people with disabilities has been dropped under the new Section 255 guidelines.   This was done to keep the guidelines focused on technical and functional accessibility rather than address implementation specific procedural requirements.  Access Board staff also indicated the guidelines also made exceptions for some of the hardware requirements for mobile phones.  Specifically they cited that under Section 255 mobile phones would not need to have text-to-speech capabilities, although text-to-speech is a requirement under Section 508.  Similarly, under the Section 255 requirements, only apps necessary to use the communications features of the phone are required to meet the standards, while for Section 508 all apps must meet the updated standards.  So while the ICT standards and guidelines essentially have the same requirements for software and hardware, there are some key differences for Section 508 and for Section 255.

For more information on the Section 508 refresh, download our free whitepaper. And watch the blog in the coming months as SSB BART Group offers guidance on how you can stay one step ahead of the new rules.

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