Here’s what you need to know about the U.S. Access Board’s long-awaited update to the federal regulations covering the accessibility of ICT and telecommunications products and services.

We’re excited to announce that the U.S. Access Board has published its long-awaited update to the federal regulations covering the accessibility of information and communications technology (Section 508) and telecommunications products and services (Section 255).

What are Section 508 and Section 255?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to federal government agencies and the technology providers that sell to them. It requires that all information and communications technology (ICT) the federal government develops, procures, maintains, and uses be accessible to people with disabilities. This ensures that (1) Federal employees with disabilities have comparable access to, and use of, information and data relative to other federal workers, and (2) members of the public with disabilities receive comparable access to publicly-available information and services.

Section 508 applies to a wide range of technology products, including computer hardware and software, websites, video/multimedia products, phone systems, and copiers.

Section 255 of the Communications Act applies to telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers. It requires that telecommunications equipment and services be accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities.

Why did the Access Board update these rules?

The Access Board updated and reorganized the Section 508 standards and Section 255 guidelines in response to market trends and innovations. Section 508 was last updated in 2000, and technology has evolved significantly since then. For example, in some cases different technological systems are now capable of performing similar tasks.

PEAT and other technology and disability experts anticipate that the updated rules will generate significant benefits for individuals with disabilities, including:

  • Increased employment opportunities, due to more accessible work environments;
  • Increased ability to obtain information on federal agency websites and conduct transactions electronically;
  • Increased civic engagement, due to improved access to information and services on federal agency websites; and
  • Increased ability to evaluate, purchase, and make full use of telecommunications products, due to increased accessibility of support documentation and services.

What are the key highlights?

New approach

The revised Section 508 standards and Section 255 guidelines replace the current product-based regulatory approach with an approach based on ICT functions. This ensures that accessibility will keep pace with advances in ICT even in an era of rapidly changing technology.

Harmonization with international standards

ICT covered by Section 508 must now conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements. This includes all covered web and non-web content and software.

Delineation of electronic content

All types of public-facing content and non-public-facing content that communicate agency official business have to be accessible.

Expanded interoperability requirements

The update provides more specificity about how operating systems, software development toolkits, and software applications should interact with assistive technology.

Extended compliance date and incorporation of a “safe harbor” provision for existing ICT

Federal agencies will have one year to comply with the revised Section 508 standards. In addition, the standards include a “safe harbor” provision for existing (i.e., legacy) ICT.

When does the update take effect?

The final rule is effective on March 20, 2017. However, the compliance dates are later:

  • Compliance with the revised Section 508 standards is required by January 18, 2018.
  • Compliance with the updated Section 255 guidelines will be required after the rules are adopted by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

How can I learn more?

PEAT’s policy team has developed a comprehensive brief to help federal agencies, people with disabilities, and other stakeholders better understand the final rule.

Read the policy brief

The Access Board has also archived a webinar and handouts discussing the changes.

View archived webinar

PEAT is delighted to see these revisions take effect—especially since the refreshed rules incorporate WCAG 2.0, the internationally-recognized standards for accessibility. This development is also part of a growing trend, as the Department of Justice has also pointed to WCAG 2.0 standards in settlements related to how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to ICT.