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Why Governments Should Demand 508 Compliance from Vendors

November 12, 2019
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It's important that members of the public have access to government websites⁠—including members of the public with disabilities that may prevent or hinder the use of those websites. By implementing accessibility features, government agencies help to remove or circumvent barriers that might prevent people with disabilities from using their websites. Because of this, many agencies are required by law and/or internal policy to meet digital accessibility requirements. These agencies pass on these requirements on to vendors to require that they meet various accessibility standards.

So, what is 508 compliance?

Section 508, an amendment made in 1998 to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.

Section 508 references Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA as the standard for web accessibility. Hence, a program or website needs to conform with WCAG 2.0 AA in order to be 508 compliant.

In 2018, an update to WCAG was enacted called WCAG version 2.1 that added new success criteria that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommends organizations conform to when looking to address web accessibility. Version 2.1 does not currently replace nor supersede version 2.0.

OK, great, now what is WCAG?

WCAG is part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which serves as the main international standards organization for the Internet.

The guidelines apply the Americans with Disabilities Act for websites by providing a wide range of recommendations for making web content accessible. There are three levels of conformance for WCAG (A, AA, AAA).

Level A: Sets a minimum level of accessibility. This level does not achieve broad accessibility in many situations.

Level AA: The current legal precedent for meeting web accessibility is AA compliance. Conformance at this level indicates conformance at lower levels (AA compliance means that a site meets both A and AA conformance).

Level AAA is the highest level of conformance and has the strictest guidelines.

Let’s dig into AA accessibility. There are 4 foundational principles of WCAG 2.0 AA:

  • Perceivable: Users should be able to perceive/consume the information being presented.
  • Operable: Users should be able to interact with the elements/components of the site.
  • Understandable: Users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the interface.
  • Robust : Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

For each of these principles, WCAG provides guidelines for making web content more accessible to users with different disabilities. Each guideline has a testable success criteria that can be used to assess conformance.

Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT)

The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document which evaluates how accessible a particular product is according to the Section 508 Standards. It is a self-disclosing document produced by the vendor which details each aspect of the Section 508 requirements and how the product supports each criteria.

Here’s the NextRequest VPAT.

ADA Compliance

This is one of the most well-known terms in accessibility compliance. ADA Compliance can be tricky and imprecise for a number of reasons. Notably, there are no official standards for web accessibility in the ADA and the US DOJ has declined to issue a guidance, stating:

“Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

However, courts have held that failure to be usable with a screen reader exposes at least some websites to litigation under the ADA regardless of lack of guidance by the DOJ. The US Supreme Court will hear a case on exactly this question this year being appealed by Domino's Pizza. It might increase the interest in "ADA Compliance" in the coming months.

Accessibility Certification

There are a number of organizations that conduct web accessibility review and provide certification, including WebAIM.

Compliance Testing Resources

State Accessibility Laws

Each state may have additional accessibility laws and requirements. Make sure to thoroughly research all state laws and requirements. Find more state specific information here.

In Conclusion

Any government agency that isn’t demanding 508 compliance from their vendors is leaving themselves open to litigation. Accessibility to all citizens shouldn’t be overlooked, so make sure to check off if a vendor is compliant.