New IT accessibility rules catch up to 17 years of changes

The U.S. Access Board finalized new requirements for IT and communications technology under Sections 508 and 255 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Remember the year 2000? No, not Y2K, but the hot, must-have technology. Back then you wanted a Gateway computer with a 550MHz chip and a year of AOL for free (that’s America Online, in case you weren’t sure). LG had just put out a phone with a monochrome touch screen that had an address book AND an organizer. And PlayStation 2 had just given gamers something to be excited about because it played CDs and DVDs and could support better resolution.

That year also was the first time the U.S. Access Board issued regulations under Section 508  of the Rehabilitation Act.  Two years before that, in 1998, the board also issued regulations to implement Section 255 of the Communications Act. Both of these regulations would help agencies ensure people with disabilities could use information technology and communications (ICT) equipment such as faxes, copiers and printers in federal offices.

Now  more than 17 years later, the board issued updated regulations just in time for the virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the iPhone 7.

“The way the rule is structured you can see if the technology falls under Section 508 or Section 255,” said Tim Creagan,  a senior accessibility specialist for the U.S. Access Board, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “The scoping chapter tells you how it applies and when, and the technical chapters provide functional performance criteria for hardware, software, documentation, and then we reference standards. All are granular in detail to help the people determine how to make information and communications technology accessible. It is a much more structured approach.”

The board released the final rule on Jan. 9 after almost a decade of work. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The board started the update effort in 2008 by bringing together an advisory committee of 82 people from 41 entities that included consumers, standards groups, people with disabilities, foreign governments such as Japan, Canada, Australia and the European Union, and from industry including AT&T and Microsoft.

The Access Board then issued advanced notices of proposed rulemaking in 2010 and again in 2011, before finally issuing a proposed rule in 2015.

“We were adapting our recommendations to the changing technology. Some of this had not occurred when the committee was in session, so we had to adapt our standards for the changing market conditions,” Creagan said. “I think we have succeeded in doing that in final rule.”

The new regulations under Sections 508 and 255 are both specific and general for hardware and software.

The board addresses access for all types of disabilities, including those pertaining to vision, hearing, color perception, speech, cognition, manual dexterity and reach.

“The rule… restructures provisions so that they are categorized by functionality instead of by product type due to the increasingly multi-functional capabilities of ICT products,” the board said in a release. “Revisions are also made to improve ICT usability, including interoperability with assistive technologies, and to clarify the types of ICT covered, such as electronic documents.”

A key difference from the first version is how far the rest of the world has come in recognizing the need to make sure technology is accessible to everyone.

The Access Board harmonized the new requirements with other guidelines and standards both in the U.S. and abroad, including standards issued by the European Commission and with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT.

“In fact, the rule references Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0 and applies them not only to websites, but also to electronic documents and software,” the board stated.

Bruce Bailey, an accessibility IT specialist at the board, said after some initial concerns by industry the final rule is a consensus document.

“The WCAG 2.0 standards are so heavily vetted and followed for years all over the world, it makes the rules easier to follow and leads to a more coherent set of requirements,” Bailey said.

Agencies have one year to implement the new rule and the board and the General Services Administration will provide training and assistance.

Creagan said agencies better understand today than they did 17 years ago what it takes to ensure technologies are compliant with the accessibility standards.

“Where the government has addressed this issue, particularly in the last six-to-eight years, we’ve really focused on trying to put out best practices across the government,  and provide technical assistance to help different agencies,” he said. “GSA also has tools that help identify features and general contract language.”

Agencies have struggled with Section 508 compliance to some extent over the last decade or more. In 2012, the Justice Department issued a survey of agencies and found just over 50 percent of the agencies had a 508 coordinator and about 60 percent were giving 508 training to their staffs.

The Office of Management and Budget pressed agencies in 2013 by sending out its fourth memo in eight years reminding agencies include 508 in acquisitions and required a strategy to ensure that happens.

Creagan said he believes agencies are complying with 508, though he readily admits it varies from agency to agency.

“We’ve always felt all of the agencies are making some effort toward 508 and we realized there were variances and we acknowledged that. We wanted to make it clear that these rules apply across all the different sized agencies and programs,” he said.

The U.S. Access Board will hold two webinars on the new 508 and 255 rules — Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. EST and Feb. 2 at 2:30 p.m. EST.

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