A Facelift for Section 508

The United States Access Board is currently updating the Section 508 standards.  Its motivation is very sound.  Technology that changes with a blink of an eye, products that overlap each other, international standards that need to be applied conjointly, and a perpetual call for a positive economic impact are behind the Section 508 Refresh, which is expected to be released the first quarter of 2014.

Will the new and improved Section 508 satisfy the Access Board’s motives for revising it?  Let’s examine some of the Section 508 Refresh provisions to see if they can meet each motive.

Changing, Overlapping Technology

When the original Section 508 was enacted in 2001, most webpages were stagnant and written in HTML alone.  They did not have much dynamic content nor did our modems have the bandwidth.  Webpages could be browsed only from a computer. TTY (teletypewriter) calls could be made only from a TTY.

Today many webpages are so dynamic that jump right out to you.  You can make phone calls from the Internet, and you can browse the Web from your cell phone, iPads, Kindles, or T.V .  Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT) products have become so advanced and interchangeable that they are difficult to tell apart.

Section 508 Refresh addresses this interchangeability by focusing on a product’s function instead of its type. In the original Section 508, 1194.21(d) mentioned that user interfaces should be accompanied by “sufficient information,” which may have been vague to novice web developers who did not know much about accessibility.  Moreover, if a web page has an embedded software application (i.e. Flash), the best that the original Section 508 can offer is 1194.22(m), which refers back to the 1194.21 software provisions. 

In the latest version of the Section 508 Refresh, however, “sufficient information” is being replaced with “programmatically determinable.” The 502.2.1 through 502.2.7 provisions could apply to user interface components of a Web-based application, a software application, or a combination of the two, as stated in the Advisory Scope 501.1:

“Examples of platforms are desktop, embedded operating systems (including mobile), web browsers, plug-ins to web browsers which render a particular media or format, and sets of components which allow other applications to execute. Applications may be web-based or client-side software.Examples of applications are email clients, word processors, help desk systems, content management systems, e-learning courseware, and terminal emulation.”

The provision calls for components that are “programmatically determinable by assistive technologies.”  In software, “programmatically determinable” can be implemented by setting the values of the Name, State, Role, and Value properties.  In web applications, an example of “programmatically determinable” could be explicit labeling for forms or data table structure.

Harmonization of Standards

Companies today have a global reach and are often doing business in the U.S. and across the globe.  In the U.S., there are three sets of accessibility standards and guidelines that are looked at for accessibility compliance – Section 508, American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).  To harmonize with the rest of the world, the Access Board wanted the revised Section 508 provisions to be comparable as possible with WCAG 2.0 which are the global set of accessibility guidelines.

To a great extent, Section 508 Refresh will succeed in its harmonization of WCAG 2.0.  Both sets of guidelines have many comparable provisions. In fact, the latest version of Section 508 Refresh refers to WCAG 2.0 many times. For instance, in Section E207.2 the following is stated:

WCAG Conformance: User interface components and content of platforms and applications shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements specified for web pages in WCAG 2.0.”

Sub-provisions of Provision 502 in Section 508 Refresh echo sub-guidelines and techniques of WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Economic Benefits

When Section 508 Refresh finally becomes official, it will have a positive economic impact. Electronic and information technology products that are developed in America could be procured overseas even if they were tested for compliance of Section 508 Refresh only since the standards are based on the worldwide guidelines of W3C WCAG 2.0. Consequently, companies will save money and time by testing a product against only one set of standards instead of two. The same concept would apply to overseas companies who sell their  products to America.

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