Understanding Section 508 Compliance and VPAT

Section 508

In 1998, The Congress of the United States of America amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. [1]

Section 508 and You

The term Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) stated in the Act is broad and ultimately applies to just about any and all devices or software. Understanding if Section 508 applies to you or your organization depends on who you are and what you are doing with the EIT.

Certainly persons with disabilities are positively impacted even if they are unaware of Section 508. The same is not true for vendors. Manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and retailers can lose significant revenue opportunities and never even know it.

Person with Disability

If you are a person with a disability recognized by the Federal government you are beneficiary of the Rehabilitation Act. As a user of EIT provided by the government of the United States of America you have the right to accessibility under the law. EIT Providers, both in the public and private sector, in conjunction with vendors that provide products and services based on EIT must be aware of and maintain Section 508 compliance under specific circumstances.

EIT Vendors

If you are a provider of EIT that will be used by Federal workers, Section 508 will apply to you. If the technology is in turn made available to the public, Section 508 still applies even though you don’t directly sell technology to them. If you provide EIT that will be used by anyone directly or indirectly federally funded, which means you are federally funded, then Section 508 may apply to you as a technology provider. If you’re not compliant you’re not going to be selected as an EIT provider to a federally funded organization.

All Other Vendors

You may not be a vendor that sells technology, but you if you are a vendor that uses EIT, like a website that is used by anyone directly or indirectly federally funded, Section 508 will apply to you. Federally funded buyers may want to use your service but since you are not Section 508 compliant, they may never even consider you as a potential vendor. You may never know if Section 508 applies to you but you may lose business, especially to government agencies, because you don’t provide products or services that are Section 508 compliant. If you’re not compliant you may not be utilized as a vendor to federally funded organization.

ITIC VPAT

In response to Section 508, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) has established a template called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template® (VPAT®) for U.S. Federal contracting officials, buyers, and vendors to assist them in making preliminary assessments regarding the compliance of electronic equipment and software to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. [2]

VPAT serves both as a requirements and specifications document organized into multiple sections dealing with different functional EIT areas. Each section is in the form of a table containing three columns:

  • Criteria that defines the accessibility requirement mandated by Section 508.
  • Supporting Feature that EIT vendors use to specify how the criteria applies to the technology.
  • Remarks and Explanations that EIT vendors can use to provide clarification as how the specification meets the requirement.

The latest revision of VPAT as of this document’s publication date is Version 1.3, organized into eight major sections dealing with different functional EIT areas:

Section 1194.21

Software Applications and Operating Systems

Section 1194.22

Web-based Internet Information and Applications

Section 1194.23

Telecommunications Products

Section 1194.24

Video and Multi-media Products

Section 1194.25

Self-Contained, Closed Products

Section 1194.26

Desktop and Portable Computers

Section 1194.31

Functional Performance Criteria

Section 1194.41

Information, Documentation and Support

For example, Section 1194.21 deals with software and operating systems. Users directly interact with application software through some user interface that may or may not assist disabled users. Criteria (i) states that "Color coding shall not be used as the only means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.”

A software developer may decide to color text in red to indicate a problem. For a color-blind individual, the text may not register as red, rendering the feature useless. The text may be colored in red, but it must also provide a distinct indication, like a warning icon with a text equivalent or the word "Warning”.

Together sections are designed to provide a comprehensive alternative to a range of disabilities. Using the example above, imagine the individual can’t see text in red or is entirely blind. Criteria (a) in Section 1194.31 states that "(a) At least one mode of operation and information retrieval that does not require user vision shall be provided, or support for Assistive Technology used by people who are blind or visually impaired shall be provided.”

Together, sections 1194.21 (i) and 1194.31 (a) defines the criteria for a progressive range of impairments. This example also illustrates how technology builds upon itself in levels to form a stack. Application software doesn’t typically provide the ability to narrate a user interface and literally speak-out the text, but modern operating systems do. Properly designed software on a compliant operating system collectively form a technology stack that forms a solution compliant with Section 508.

Conclusion

The Rehabilitation Act with hundreds of sections is broad. Section 508 deals with complex technology that is widely deployed throughout the United States. The subject matter is highly detailed and subject to interpretation by vendors and buyers. To assist all parties involved the Information Technology Industry Council created an effective system in the form of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template® to assist in the process.

If you are an EIT vendor you must be compliant if you want any chance to sell your offerings to a large portion of the economy. If you are any other vendor you need to seriously evaluate Section 508 compliance for customer-facing technology, most often presented in the form of your website.

See Section 508 Certification and VPAT for more information.

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