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Section 508 Gets an Update: New Web Accessibility Guidelines for Government Sites Take Effect in January

People with hearing and sight disabilities using screen readers and other assistive tech must be able to access content on government websites, but getting and staying compliant is a challenge.

Updates for Section 508 accessibility legislation go into effect in January, creating new specifications for how federal agencies must make websites and other digital information channels navigable for users with disabilities, and experts say these requirements are poised to become the new standard for state and local governments as well.

Section 508 is a 2001 amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, designed to help sweeping accessibility legislation keep pace with the rapidly evolving nature of technology. Early this year, lawmakers passed a long-awaited refresh of Section 508 that goes into effect Jan. 18. The exact updates are complex and nuanced, but at a basic level they stipulate that federal government websites must be accessible for people with hearing and sight disabilities using screen readers and other assistive tech. The requirements also note that content should be accessible for people with cognitive, language and learning disabilities, while requiring adherence to WCAG 2.0 standards, a set of guidelines used throughout the world.

Advocates have praised the updates, while also noting that lawmakers must be diligent in continuing to make tweaks as new technologies become common. In an email conversation, Brian Charlson, the director of technology at the Carroll Center for the Blind, wrote that Section 508 updates mark the government’s most comprehensive tech accessibility legislation to date.

“By incorporating the WCAG 2.0 guidelines into the 508 standards, we are getting the best and latest thinking of hundreds of accessibility experts all over the world, as well as harmonizing internationally with those countries who have also adopted the WCAG 2.0 guidelines in their accessibility efforts,” wrote Charlson.

Dave Schleppenbach, vice president of research and development with the accessibility advocacy group See Write Hear, said in a phone conversation that not being able to keep up with updates has been an ongoing problem in terms of making tech accessible for users with disabilities. There is continual discord between people who create and edit content, the massive companies that issue updates to the most common Web browsers, and the much smaller companies that make assistive tech.

What this means is that a city government, for example, makes a site compliant and in line with a set of specifications. That same week, however, Google or Microsoft might issue a Web browser update, which a smaller company that makes screen reading software does not account for, nullifying the city government’s work to stay up-to-date with specifications and rendering its site unusable for the disabled.

“There’s a lot that has to go right for this to work, and it’s kind of a fragile process,” Schleppenbach said. “So, what you often see is an agency that will spend money on compliance and still have usability issues.”

This can create a legal gray area because the agency followed specs and requirements, but the Web browser’s discord with the screen reader means its website still isn’t usable. Schleppenbach said this is, however, an issue companies in the accessibility space are aware of and working to correct. Another challenge is that people with disabilities are often unable to report problems with using a website because they would need a better grasp of said website to do so.

There is, however, guidance in this area available for municipal and state governments, which experts say may have some of their own localized laws to factor in, but are, for the most part, likely to take cues from the federal government and follow requirements laid out by Section 508.

When the government in Fresno County, Calif., for example, recently launched a new website, it did so with the help of Vision, a software and consulting company in the gov tech space that helped them train the 160 public servants who will be editing Web content with Section 508 accessibility in mind. This meant making sure photos with vital information got alt tags on the backend that could be deciphered by a screen reader, adding transcripts or subtitles to videos, and writing in a way that could be easily understood by users with learning disabilities, people older than 65, or parents who don’t speak English and so have their children read and translate vital government information for them.

“The whole concept for getting our content editors trained in more than just the actual content management system tool was new to us,” said Daniel Moore, information technology manager for Fresno County.

Prior to the redesign process, Fresno County did a quick scan of its old home page to gauge past accessibility consideration and found that about half of the images on the home page were missing tags for screen readers.

To help local governments in similar situations, Vision is offering a free four-part Web series titled 18 Minutes to Get You Ready for January 18, which is open to all governments, not just Vision clients.

“Having a website that’s accessible is critical,” said Martin Lind, vice president of services and business development for Vision. “It’s a relatively easy thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Vision is far from the only company providing accessibility evaluations and trainings. SeeWriteHear, among other groups, also has a vast set of resources to help governments and other interested agencies become compliant.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.