The Center for An Accessible Society Disability Issues Information









Section 508

Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. The Rehabilitation Act requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.

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 -- the 1986 version established non-binding guidelines for technology accessibility, while the 1998 version calleld for binding, enforceable standards.

The Access Board was the agency charged with developing the access standards. It issued the final standards on December 21, 2000, which take effect 6 months after the issuing date.

After June 21, 2001, federal agencies will have to use these standards in all their electronic and information technology acquisitions. The new version of Section 508 also establishes a complaint procedure and reporting requirements, which further strengthen the law.

Q and A:

What does the law mean by "accessible'?

A 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 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.

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.

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. Did you ever try to find a particular scene from your favorite video? If you want to find the famous restaurant scene from the captioned version of "When Harry met Sally" search on "I'll have what she's having" and you're there.

Section 508 of The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 requires Federal agencies to have internet sites that are accessible to all users -- including people who cannot see or hear.

The Americans with Disabilities Act's provisions have made a considerable impact on our society, opening many doors to employment, educational, and recreational opportunities that had previously been closed.

But a few years after passage of the ADA, it became clear that the provisions of the ADA had not contemplated the huge technological revolution that was enveloping our country. Although individuals with disabilities were finally gaining some physical and communications access to government and business employment and services, access to burgeoning telecommunications and information technologies remained elusive.

When, in the early 1990's, Congress began considering sweeping changes to our nation's telecommunications policies, disability advocates saw a ripe opportunity to have this need addressed. As a consequence, passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought with it the arrival of a new civil rights law for individuals with disabilities: Section 255.

Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104, codified at 47 U.S.C. Sec. 255, requires telecommunications services and equipment to be accessible, where readily achievable. Where not readily achievable, such services and equipment must nevertheless be compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment used to achieve access, again where this is readily achievable. Readily achievable is defined as "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense." The legislation contemplates that manufacturers and service providers will consider access needs during the design, development and fabrication of their offerings, so that expensive and burdensome retrofitting for access will not be necessary.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was the next logical step in the progression of these various Federal civil rights laws. Much of the earlier legislation focused on access to what has traditionally fallen into the field of "telecommunications." But our nation is now witnessing a rapid convergence of these traditionally telecommunications technologies with new and advanced electronic and information technologies. As our Federal government becomes increasingly reliant on these convergent technologies, Section 508 will ensure that individuals with disabilities will be able to reap their many benefits.

From Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee Final Report, May 12, 1999







Expert sources


"One year and counting: Section 508" [Federal Computer Week, June 24, 2003]

The Digital Divide

Section 508

The Web Access Initiative


About The Center for An Accessible Society