What is Section 508?
Section 508 has its origins in 1973, when the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, requiring unrestricted access to all federally sponsored programs and activities. The Access Board was established to oversee the new regulations, which were mostly for physical access to buildings at the time.
The Section 508 laws were revised in 1998 to include provisions for the growth of the internet and electronic communications in the federal government. Here is a summary of the law taken from the US Access Board website:
“On August 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, which covers access to federally funded programs and services. The law strengthens section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the Federal government. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it does not pose an undue burden.”
In 2017, the law was revised and strengthened by the 508 Refresh, which brought Section 508 requirements to WCAG 2.0 AA level compliance. This much-needed update brings the US government up to pace with the standards that most countries had established. It prompted federal agencies to work harder on their website and web content compliance.
What does Section 508 mean for any company?
Obviously, Section 508 applies to all the Federal Agencies but what about the local, state government or, Non-Profit Organization? The law has always been a source of confusion, but the basic understanding is that it applies to every organization that receives federal funding.
So, if an organization receives any federal funding, it is required to meet the Section 508 guidelines. Many organizations that would not typically get any funds from the federal government are now technically covered under Section 508 thanks to pandemic programs like the Paycheck Protection Program.
Most organizations will not be held accountable for Section 508 compliance unless they are part of a well-established federally-funded program, such as Medicare programs in the healthcare industry. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is far more applicable.
Why is it more likely that ADA compliance may result in a demand letter or lawsuit?
The ADA and the regulations that have resulted in enhanced access to public buildings are well-known to most people. Over the years, advancements such as wheelchair ramps, braille instructions in elevators, and crosswalks without high curbs have aided people in gaining access to “places of public accommodation.”
The ADA, unlike Section 508, is a considerably broader law that applies to all organizations, not just the federal government. So, if you run a business and your physical location is not accessible, you must comply with the law and make the appropriate changes.
While the ADA has not been revised to include “electronic” places of public accommodation, the Department of Justice has been vigorously pursuing firms and organizations on many levels and in all industries, ranging from state and local government to non-profits and private corporations.
In the end, a website, e-commerce application, kiosk, or smartphone app is now considered the equivalent of a physical store or restaurant, and it must be accessible. The ADA website provides a comprehensive list of current and ongoing ADA enforcement actions.