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Elevating Digital Accessibility: A Closer Look at Enhanced Federal Compliance with Section 508

  • Victoria Robinson
  • March 19, 2024
Section508Blog

In the digital age, ensuring that technology serves everyone equitably is not just a noble goal—it’s a legal requirement for federal agencies. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by federal agencies must be accessible to people with disabilities. This law aims to eliminate barriers in information technology, opening new avenues for people with disabilities to obtain information and engage with their government.

Recent developments signal a pivotal shift in how federal agencies approach Section 508 compliance. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in collaboration with the General Services Administration (GSA) and the U.S. Access Board, unveiled a landmark guidance in December, detailed in OMB Memo M-24-08. This guidance is not merely an update; it’s a clarion call for a more inclusive digital government.

The memo outlines enhanced expectations and accountability, urging agencies to place accessibility at the heart of digital governance. Among the pivotal components of the new guidance are:

  • Leadership and Accountability: Agencies are now required to appoint a dedicated program manager to spearhead and monitor digital accessibility efforts.
  • Expert Involvement: The integration of accessibility subject matter experts into the acquisition process ensures that new Information and Communications Technology (ICT) adheres to accessibility standards from the outset.
  • User-Centric Design: Including individuals with disabilities in user groups for digital product design and testing enriches the user experience for everyone.
  • Proactive Compliance: Agencies must regularly scan and monitor web content for accessibility, promptly addressing any deficiencies.
  • Ongoing Education: The mandate for regular training on Section 508 and digital accessibility aims to foster a culture of inclusivity.

These enhancements come in response to mixed results in 508 compliance across agencies. A February 2023 report by the Department of Justice and GSA underscored the need for additional support and resources, reflecting on insights from a comprehensive 2012 survey.

“Accessibility must be incorporated, unless an exception applies, from the very beginning of the design and development of any digital experience and integrated throughout every step of the ICT lifecycle, including qualitative and inclusive research, feature prioritization, testing, deployment, enhancements, and maintenance activities,” the memo states. (Exceptions are detailed in the Standards under E202 General Exceptions.)

A Future of Inclusive Digital Services

Anticipating the road ahead, the GSA and the Access Board are finalizing a government-wide Section 508 assessment for 2024. This effort, expected to roll out in phases from spring to fall, aims to gather detailed insights into agency practices and challenges. Kristin Smith-O’Connor of the GSA shared with ExecutiveGov, “We are refining and honing our approach, ensuring that the upcoming changes, while not drastic, will significantly contribute to our collective goal of a fully accessible federal digital landscape.”

Agencies are encouraged to lean on the resources available on Section508.gov. This platform strives to be a comprehensive resource, offering guidance, best practices, and compliance testing tools. Additionally, the OMB memo directs the GSA and the Access Board to broaden Section 508 certification and training opportunities, enhancing the capabilities of federal employees to champion digital accessibility.

Enhancing Accessibility Now and in the Future

When navigating the complexities of Section 508 compliance, consider rigorous testing using tools like WAVE, Axe, and Lighthouse to identify and rectify common accessibility issues. However, recognizing the limitations of automated tools, consider augmenting them with manual evaluations, including keyboard navigation and screen reader compatibility tests. The combination of these efforts are guided by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), ensuring your services remain aligned with legal requirements and best practices.

Yet, the journey towards universal accessibility is ongoing. Despite significant strides, the path forward requires continuous effort, innovation, and collaboration. We celebrate the government’s initiative to demystify Section 508 compliance, and we remain hopeful for more actionable guidance to emerge, fostering an environment where digital accessibility is not just a compliance requirement but a cornerstone of public service.

Barry Lawrence is a Senior Communication Program Manager for Highlight. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and reflect a commitment to fostering a more accessible digital world for all Americans.