Section 508 guidelines get an update under proposed rule

The U.S. Access Board released its long-awaited proposed rule to update accessibility guidelines for federal information and communication technology. Some of t...

Technology has changed a lot since 2000, when the U.S. Access Board issued its first accessiblity guidelines for federal IT.

On Wednesday, the Access Board released its long-awaited proposed rule to update accessibility guidelines for federal information and communication technology (ICT) subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. It also provides similar updates for telecommunications equipment covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act.

“The Board’s proposal is responsive to widespread changes and innovations in the IT and communication industries,” said Sachin Dev Pavithran, vice chairman of the Access Board, in a release. “It is important that the 508 Standards and 255 Guidelines stay abreast of the ever-evolving technologies they cover so that accessibility for people with disabilities is properly addressed.”

The proposed rule incorporates the latest version of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

“We’re proposing to reference that as the Web standard for accessibility plus the standard to determine whether documents and software are accessible,” said David Capozzi, executive director of the Access Board.

WCAG 2.0 is used by many other countries and has been referenced by the Department of Transportation in its rule making under the Air Carrier Access Act for airline websites.

The original version of WCAG came out in 2000, which was about the same time the Access Board was finalizing its own set of WCAG-inspired Web standards in the first version of Section 508. This time around, the Board decided to incorporate WCAG 2.0 rather than stick with its own separate guidelines.

“Rather than mimicking the standards, we did a direct reference, which I think goes a lot further toward providing harmonization with international standards,” Capozzi said.

The proposed rule also adds Real Time Text (RTT) functionality to the Board’s accessibility guidelines for products providing real-time voice communications.

“That’s kind of like the new version of TTYs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” Capozzi said. “Real Time Text is different from text that most people would think of where, when you’re sending a text from one person to another or from one person to a group, you’d type the whole message and then you’d send it. Whereas Real Time Text you send character-by-character as you’re typing.”

Feds using RTTs will be able to communicate quicker and in a more conversational manner than they had previously with TTYs.

The proposed rule also addresses the types of electronic content that are covered by Section 508.

For example, if an individual files an emailed complaint with a federal agency that has enforcement authority, that agency’s email reply would be covered under the rule change.

“An email blast from, for example, the Office of Personnel Management that sends out emails to all federal agencies alerting them to some new OPM memo or a memo from the Office of Management and Budget that goes to all the agencies alerting them to some new policy change, those would be covered as well,” Capozzi said.

Some of the changes being proposed are more subtle. For example, information technology or “IT” will now be referred to as “ICT” for information and communication technology, which is how many other nations refer to this type of technology

In addition, the Access Board is moving away from identifying specific products in its guidelines.

“The current standards address technology kind of product by product, so it looks at what the product is instead of what the product does,” Capozzi said. “And so, the new proposed standards are more functional-based as opposed to product-specific requirements.”

The Access Board took this approach as a way to keep the guidelines from becoming obsolete as technology continues to rapidly evolve.

“We’re trying to make these last a little bit longer, so that it’s not relating to the product itself, but what the function is,” he said. “The functions probably won’t change that dramatically.”

The Access Board is accepting public comments on the proposed rule for 90 days. It’s also hosting two public hearings, one on March 5, at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel, Mission Beach A & B, in San Diego, California, and the other on March 11, at the Access Board Conference Center, in Washington, D.C. The Board will also host a public webinar on March 31.


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