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1) What is Section 508?
Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. On August 7, 1998, the President signed into law the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which includes the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. Section 508 was originally added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1986; the 1998 amendments significantly expand and strengthen the technology access requirements in Section 508.
2) How do these changes to Section 508 improve upon the earlier version?
The 1986 version of Section 508 established non-binding guidelines for technology accessibility, while the 1998 version creates binding, enforceable standards and will incorporate these standards into Federal procurement regulations. Federal agencies will use these standards in all their electronic and information technology acquisitions. Consistent government-wide standards will make it easier for Federal agencies to meet their existing obligations to make their technology systems accessible to people with disabilities, and will promote competition in the technology industry by clarifying the Federal market's requirement for accessibility in products intended for general use. The new version of Section 508 also establishes a complaint procedure and reporting requirements, which further strengthen the law.
3) To whom does Section 508 apply?
Section 508 applies to Federal departments and agencies.
4) Does Section 508 apply to the private sector?
No, it does not regulate the private sector and does not apply to recipients of Federal funds.
5) What does Section 508 require of Federal agencies and departments?
Section 508 requires that when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, they must ensure that it is accessible to people with disabilities, unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. Federal employees and members of the public who have disabilities must have access to and use of information and services that is comparable to the access and use available to non-disabled Federal employees and members of the public.
6) How will Federal agencies and departments know whether the electronic and information technology is accessible?
New standards have been established to help Federal agencies determine whether or not a technology product or system is accessible. Federal agencies must comply with these technology accessibility standards for all electronic and information technology acquired on or after six months from the date the Access Board issued its final standards (December 21, 2000). Technology developed or acquired for a Federal agency by a contractor must also comply with the standards. If a Federal agency determines that it would pose an undue burden to comply with the standards, it must still provide information and data to individuals with disabilities through an alternative means of access that can be used by the individuals.
7) How will these technology accessibility standards be developed?
The Board was required to issue standards that define which electronic and information technology is covered by Section 508, and describe what is meant by `accessible technology' by setting forth the technical and functional performance criteria necessary to implement the accessibility requirements. The Board was required to consult with the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Defense, the General Services Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the electronic and information technology industry, and disability organizations in developing its standards. The Access Board created an Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) to advise it on the standards. The Committee's final report was delivered to the Board on May 11, 1999. On March 31, 2000, the Board published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking based on the Committee's recommendations.
8) How will the standards be applied to federal procurement?
Six months after the Access Board published the final standards, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council is required to revise the Federal Acquisition Regulation and each Federal department or agency shall revise the Federal procurement policies and directives under their control to incorporate the standards. The Access Board will periodically review and update the standards as necessary.
9) What are Federal agencies required to do in the short term to comply with Section 508?
Agencies must evaluate their current electronic and information technology systems for accessibility to individuals with disabilities, and submit a report to the Attorney General containing the results of the evaluation.
10) What reporting requirements does Section 508 create?
The Attorney General must submit a report to the President on the extent to which the electronic and information technology of the Federal Government is accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Department of Justice issued its report April 19, 2000. In addition, every two years thereafter the Attorney General must report to the President and the Congress on Federal agency compliance with the requirements of the law, and on any actions on individual complaints.
11) Where can Federal agencies go for technical assistance?
The General Services Administration and the Access Board will provide technical assistance on the requirements of Section 508. Agencies and individuals may also seek information from the many public, non-profit, educational, or private institutions and organizations that specialize in making technology accessible to people with disabilities. These organizations, along with companies in the electronic and information technology industry, can assist agencies in identifying innovative technology or in developing accessible technology solutions.
12) Are there any exemptions to the technology accessibility standards?
A Federal agency does not have to comply with the technology accessibility standards if it would impose an undue burden to do so. This is consistent with language used in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other civil rights legislation, where the term `undue burden' has been defined as "significant difficulty or expense." However, the agency must explain why meeting the standards would pose an undue burden for a given procurement action, and must still provide people with disabilities access to the information or data that is affected.
Section 508 contains a limited exemption for national security systems as defined by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. These are systems used for military command, weaponry, intelligence, and cryptologic activities. The exemption does not apply to routine business and administrative systems used for other defense-related purposes or by defense agencies or personnel.
13) How will Section 508 be enforced?
Because the Section 508 standards will be incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), agencies' procurement of accessible technology will be subject to the same stringent compliance and enforcement mechanisms as other parts of the FAR.
There is an administrative complaint process which becomes effective six months after the Board issued its final standards. It enables any individual with a disability to file a complaint alleging that a Federal department or agency has not complied with the accessible technology standards in a procurement made after that date. The complaint process is the same as that used for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, for complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in Federally-conducted programs or activities. It provides injunctive relief and attorney's fees to the prevailing party, but does not include compensatory or punitive damages.
Individuals may also file a civil action against an agency.
14) What is meant by "electronic and information technology"?
The Access Board defined "electronic and information technology" consistent with the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. That Act defines "information technology" to include "any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information." It includes computer hardware, software, networks, and peripherals as well as many electronic and communications devices commonly used in offices.
15) Does Section 508 apply to Web sites of federal agencies?
Yes. Federal agencies which provide information to the public or to their employees through Web sites must ensure that such sites are available to all persons with internet or intranet access, including persons with disabilities.
16) Does this requirement also apply to commercial or private sector Web sites?
No. Section 508 does not apply to a private sector Web site unless such site is provided under contract to a covered entity. For example, a Federal agency might contract with a consulting firm to collect and analyze some demographic data and make that information available to the public on a Web site. In that case, the Web site or portion devoted to fulfilling the contractual obligation would be subject to Section 508. The firm's general Web site, or the portion not devoted to the contracted study, would not be subject to Section 508.
17) Does this mean Web sites can't have graphics?
Not at all. Actually, designing an accessible Web site is not as difficult as most people believe. Often it is a matter of identifying graphics, elements, frames, etc. For example, HTML code already provides the "Alt Text" tag for graphics which some designers simply forget or ignore.
18) Won't accessible Web sites be less appealing?
On the contrary, accessible sites have several advantages. For one thing, some people turn off graphics so sites will load faster. Without "alt" tags, graphics-intense sites may be unusable. Also, with the growth of PDAs, and even Web site content delivered to cell phones, having text-based content is becoming more important. Because the screens on such devices are so small, graphics will probably never be a viable option. So the busy executive, waiting in an airport, who wants to check her stock portfolio on her cell phone isn't going to turn to the graphics-only site. Furthermore, with the growth of voice technology the harried commuter can have the headlines from his favorite news site read to him, but only if there is a text-based content. Finally, if a digitized video has synchronized captions, the text can be searched.
19) What does the law mean by "accessible'?
The standards developed by the Access Board explain the detailed technical and functional performance criteria that will determine whether a technology product or system is `accessible.'
In general, an information technology system is accessible to people with disabilities if it can be used in a variety of ways that do not depend on a single sense or ability. For example, a system that provides output only in audio format would not be accessible to people with hearing impairments, and a system that requires mouse actions to navigate would not be accessible to people who cannot use a mouse because of a dexterity or visual impairment. Section 508 focuses on the overall accessibility of electronic and information technology systems, not on providing accommodations at individual worksites. Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act requires Federal agencies to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities; it generally covers individual worksites but not overall technology systems. Even with an accessible system, individuals with disabilities may still need specific accessibility-related software or peripheral devices as an accommodation to be able to use it. For example, in order to use an accessible word-processing program, a person who is blind may need add-on software that reads text aloud; if the word-processing program could not be made compatible with a screen-reading program, it might not be accessible.
20) How does Section 508 apply to other Federal laws?
Section 508 in no way replaces or otherwise limits the rights or remedies available under any other existing Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities. As part of the Rehabilitation Act, it clarifies and strengthens the Federal government's existing obligation to ensure that technology is accessible to people with disabilities.