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Monitoring of Section 508 Compliance by Federal Agencies Likely to Increase

  • Victoria Robinson
  • November 8, 2022
Monitoring508

Pressure may soon increase on Federal agencies that have failed to meet Section 508 compliance regulations. As part of a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires that all Federal electronic information and data be accessible to all users regardless of abilities. Legislators want to see more proof that government organizations are following the law, now in its 25th year.

It has been 10 years since the Department of Justice (DOJ) surveyed and produced a report on agency response and compliance with Section 508. A bipartisan group of Senators, led by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), call for a new report to be made, as mandated by Congress. The DOJ and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are working on a response.

Sen. Casey, chair of the Special Committee on Aging, leads the charge “to bring some sunlight onto 508 agency efforts,” reports the Federal News Network. “The Biden administration’s clarion call for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEI&A) is ringing hollow unless agencies do more to show and tell how they are meeting both the spirit and intent of Section 508,” writes Executive Editor Jason Miller.

A Mixed Bag of Results

A new report from the DOJ will find that Federal agency progress remains slow to comply with Section 508, experts say. Quoted in a story by POLITICO, George Towne, chair and CEO of Access Ready, a disability rights advocacy organization, said that Federal agencies are hindered by “a flawed process.” The Federal government remains behind the curve, Towne said.

The last DOJ report on Section 508, released in 2012, found that nearly 60 percent of agencies reported not providing Section 508 training to employees. “Lack of resources” (58 percent) was identified as the top challenge in implementing and complying with Section 508, followed by “Lack of general awareness” (50 percent), and “Lack of or inadequate training” (43 percent).

Compliance gaps remain. In a 2021 Section 508 compliance study, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) conducted tests of the top three visited pages of popular Federal websites. Of the 72 websites tested, 48 percent failed the accessibility test. As you drill down, deeper into sub-pages and content links, compliance is likely to be worse.

The Cost of Non-Conformance

Section 508 is broad. It applies to nearly all forms of modern communications: websites, applications, videos, PDFs, Word documents, email, graphics, data tables, color choices, contrast, and much more. But while good-intentioned, Section 508 is often difficult to comprehend and follow. The law, for example, does not prescribe the testing tools that should be used or processes to follow. Policy and enforcement vary. Resources aren’t available for adding the number of 508 specialists needed to help. What we see are differing interpretations of the standard and a wide range of approaches – sometimes within agencies and even within departments. Deadlines often determine how much attention 508 compliance gets.

The result is non-conformance, which can be costly in terms of money and time.

“Section 508 provides remedies to those aggrieved by violations of [Section 508] through the long-standing Rehabilitation Act provisions, found in Section 505, which, after administrative remedies are exhausted, allow for both private rights of action in court and for reasonable [attorney’s fees],” according to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). For agencies, this can mean mounting legal fees, time spent on mediation, and an unexpected shift in project priorities.

Such cases are “only a representative sample of the inaccessible experiences of thousands of blind Americans,” said Anil Lewis, an executive director at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), in testimony to the Special Committee on Aging. “This statute, with the promise of creating so many opportunities for people with disabilities, is failing due to a lack of proper implementation and enforcement, and in many instances, this makes it even more difficult for people with disabilities to access information and services than before.”

The NFB serves as an advocate and resource for many of the legal actions and settlements, including a 2019 suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Clark v. Perdue Complaint) and a 2021 settlement agreement involving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (McDuffie v. McDonough Settlement Agreement).

Perhaps the costliest result of a Section 508 complaint is that it forces an agency to make retroactive changes, which requires considerable reformatting and effort. As Highlight 508 specialists remind me daily, the job is easier if you start, from the beginning, with 508-accessible templates and base documents and project management strategies that incorporate 508 recommendations and testing.

The Road to Inclusivity

On a macro level, the 2012 DOJ report provides guidance on ways agencies can establish a culture of 508 conformance, including:

  • Establish Section 508 Policies and Procedures (DOJ found that just over 50 percent of agencies had Section 508 policies).
  • Appoint Coordinators and Establish Section 508 Offices or Programs (70 percent had a coordinator, but only 35 percent had established a Section 508 office or program).
  • Provide More Training to Agency Personnel (Only 40 percent provided training).

At the task level, there are hundreds of government and non-government resources on how to make and test digital content for 508 compliance. But be warned. The guidance can become quickly overwhelming. Highlight urges its clients to ensure compliance throughout the content development lifecycle, starting with compliant templates, baking in project time for compliance checks, and having content tested and reviewed by one of our 508 specialists.

While the legal ramifications of not complying with 508 standards are reasons enough for agency concern, it is also the right thing to do. Access is vitally important to everyone.

“Accessibility, the ‘A’ in DEIA, is a foundation on which the federal workforce must build diversity, equity and inclusion for people with disabilities,” according to the U.S. General Services Administration’s Section508.gov site, which has information on content creation, testing tools, training, and special events. “Without accessibility, we cannot truly achieve the others.”

Here are a few more resources:

U.S. Access Board, which develops and maintains 508 standards

Guidance on effective alt text from Microsoft

WCAG Color Contrast Checker

Web Content Accessibility from W3C

WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool from WebAIM.org

Section 508 Checklist from WebAIM.org