Section 508: What it is and how to achieve compliance

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The Rehabilitation Act was first introduced in 1973 and Section 508 was first added as an amendment to the original version back in 1986.

Section 508 was considered necessary in view of the substantial growth and development of electronic and information technologies but the original changes proved to be mainly ineffective, as there were no meaningful enforcement mechanisms put in place to ensure compliance of the Act.

In 1998, US Congress implemented the new Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, so that it addressed and dealt with issues of compliance through the process of market research and government procurement. It also set technical standards against which products can be evaluated in order to establish and confirm that they meet the required technical compliance standards.

The confusion and difficulty that many agencies  are faced with Section 508 seems to stem  from the need to achieve a balance. That is, a balance of meeting the required legal provisions of the Act and satisfying the United States Access Board’s technical accessibility standards as well.

Section 508 requires that all Federal information that is accessible electronically must also be accessible for those with disabilities
. The Act also states that the information has to be accessible in a number of different ways, which are specific to each disability.

There are a number of technical standards that are required to be met in order to achieve Section 508 compliance. This guide will run through the various aspects in greater detail and provide you with an effective checklist. Here is a summary of the technical standards that need to be addressed:

  • Desktop & Portable Computers – The Act discusses guidance in relation to accessibility for standardized ports and mechanically operated controls, including keyboards and touch screens.
  • Self-Contained and Closed products – This means products where the end user is not able to actually add or connect their own assistive technologies. Everyday technology items such as copiers, kiosks and fax machines are often classified as self-contained or closed products and the standards referred to in Section 508, require access features to be built into these systems where required.
  • Software Applications and Operating Systems – The technical standards required to achieve compliance relate to aspects like accessibility to software via adequate keyboard navigation or web browser capabilities.
  • Telecommunications Products – Section 508 aims to address accessibility issues for a wide range of telecommunication products which includes cell phones and voicemail systems. To achieve compliance, you will need to ensure that any technology you are using is compatible with hearing aids and assistive listening devices.
  • Videos and Multimedia – Technical standards required by Section 508 also includes a set of requirements for captioning and audio description of multimedia products such as training or informational productions.
  • Web-Based Intranet and Internet Applications – Technical standards required include the need for users with disabilities to have access to assistive technology such as screen readers and refreshable Braille displays, so that they are able to access the content.

Chapter 1: Cutting through the jargon

Section 508 is a federal requirement and therefore you can expect to find plenty of official guidance through various US government portals and resources. Yet the task of navigating through all the jargon and picking out the most relevant points can be a complex and daunting challenge.

Here we have compiled a  checklist of the best practices that you need to adopt if you want to meet the accessibility standards required with the minimum of fuss.

The United States Access Board have published detailed guidance to help you offer full access and inclusion for all, which you may want to refer to at some point. Here are the best practices that you should initially focus your efforts on when seeking Section 508 compliance.

  • Always use clear visuals – You should work on the basis that any images on your website need to include alt text in the code or descriptive captions. You should avoid using color as a navigational tool due to the fact that colorblind people and screen readers are unable to differentiate if they are presented with color alone.
  • Supplement your audio and video – All multimedia sources will require additional enhancements and treatments for maximum accessibility. For example, if your website contains a video, this should have synchronized captioning, and audio podcasts need to include transcripts for anyone with a hearing impairment.
  • Try to be keyboard-friendly – You need to remember that not every user will be able to use a mouse. This means that you should aim to allow easy navigation with a keyboard by including headings, lists and other structural elements.
  • Provide accessible forms and files – Another aspect of compliance is the need to ensure that users with screen readers or other relevant assistive technology are able to fill out and submit any form on the website. This same approach need to be taken with documents and PDF’s as well as any other form or file format that needs to be easily accessible to all users.
  • “Skip Navigation” options – A lot of websites will contain a certain amount of repetitive elements about them. If you build in “Skip Navigation” options, this will enable users to skip over items and get to the main content of the page.

Chapter 2: Testing and Preparing Documents

We will provide some guidance on ways to create and structure documents and files so that they are accessible from the outset and you should aim to test every document for Section 508 compliance as it is created and before it is loaded, to save time and effort correcting any errors at a later date.

Ensure every electronic document received is accessible. The correct use of acquisition language will ensure that at least one version is compliant.

The US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) provide an online tutorial to give you comprehensive instructions on how to create and structure documents. You will want to include some of the following points and aspects when working towards achieving Section 508 compliance. The following mainly deal with compliancy for PDF document conversion:

Creating Tables – When you are using tables within your webpages, be sure to create them correctly in the first place. There are very specific ways to create them and if they are constructed incorrectly in the first place, it can be very time consuming to fix once they are in PDF format.

Lists – The same comments apply to lists and if you always use
Paragraph Group List formats when creating bulleted or numerical lists, you should hopefully avoid trying to fix an error at a later date.

Fillable Forms – There is actually only one way to create a compliant fillable PDF form, which you do by creating the fillable areas in the Adobe Acrobat PDF. You will find that fillable areas that have been created using other programs will not transfer successfully when they are converted to PDF.

Take care with Backgrounds, Borders and Text Boxes – You will to have to find a suitable compromise between your creativity and functionality if you are going to be able to produce a 508 compliant PDF with the minimum of fuss.

Using some great looking backgrounds, attractive borders and text boxes is fine from a visual impact point of view, but if you make it too complicated, you are going to struggle to create a PDF that meets the standards required for compliance.

The problem is that when you convert a document to PDF, any backgrounds and fancy borders are going to be read as images and text boxes will probably not be read at all. This then means that anything that is read as an image will require alt text within the PDF to fix it or will have to be converted to backgrounds, so you should really try to avoid text boxes altogether.

Avoid encoding errors – If you choose to use certain fonts that are not considered to be a regular selection, you will often find that some special characters used by these fonts (wingdings is a good example) will fail in the conversion process and will result in encoding errors, so keep it simple.

Special Effects – Maintaining the theme of keeping it simple, there are quite a number of special effects that you can apply to text, which will almost certainly mean you can’t achieve 508 compliance as a result of using them.

 Bevels, drop shadows, glows and other such special effects may make your text look good but you will need to remove these from any text that is not inside a shape, before you convert to PDF.

Text in Shapes –  If you want a bit of creative flexibility in order to make your webpage look more interesting but still 508 compliant, consider placing text in shapes.

A shape does not use formatted paragraph text and is not linked with a particular style, which means that you can be creative with your text effects provided your text is contained within a shape. Just remember to set the Wrap add Alt Text and also fix the reading order when you save to PDF, in the same way that you would with images.

Document Properties – Document properties are also referred to as metadata, and they are the details about a file that help to describe or identify it.

Properties are also important for any document that is being posted on a website, as search engines will use this information to identify documents that users might want to look at. Check out a site like the wiki.servicenow (see useful sites below) for more detailed instructions and a useful tutorial to guide you through the process if you are not sure how to set up document properties correctly.

Inserting Images and Graphics – You should always check the reading order of images and graphics once you have saved in PDF but if you use Wrap in line with text by right-clicking on the image, you are more likely to maintain the format successfully when you convert to PDF.

Using Alt Text –  Any images, diagrams, photos or other graphics, need to have an embedded alternate text label.

The reason for this is that users who are unable to view the image are still able to understand what they are missing from the document. You also need to ensure that each image is assigned its own unique description in order to avoid any conflict errors.

Use online tutorials like the ones on the Microsoft Office site or something similar, to help you become familiar with how to insert Alt Text in your applications.

Poor Color Combinations – You should give consideration to the fact that individuals who suffer from low-vision or color blindness, may struggle to read your documents if the text color fails to strongly contrast with the background color.

About 5% of people suffer from partial color blindness and if you choose an unsuitable color combination, you will make their task of distinguishing between certain colors, much harder. To achieve 508 compliance, use text and page background color combinations which achieve a significant level of brightness and contrast.

Avoid colored text altogether, as someone with red-green color blindness for example, will simply be unable to distinguish between the two.

Provide Unique Hyperlink Labels – A feature of screen readers is that they allow the user the opportunity to hear just the hyperlinks on a page, which is very helpful for ease of navigation.

Think about the options for displaying URL’s and try to avoid using generic Click Here  links, as assistive technology will not be able to identify the actual web address, so you might want to type the whole address if it is too long or doesn’t look right, type the landing page web address but in the hyperlink context box, put in the full address.

When the full address shows up in Alt Text as well, it ensures that the document looks more presentable and you are still able to be 508 compliant.

Creating Forms – Section 508 guidelines stipulate that electronic forms that are designed to be completed online, people using assistive technology need to be able to access the information.

Create the form layouts in word beforehand and then have tooltips associated with a field for compliance purposes. You should however be aware that MS Word document form fields will not transfer to PDF and therefore have to be set in Adobe Acrobat for fillable PDF forms.

The following checklist is a Word Document 508 Checklist produced by HHS and can be downloaded as a PDF file or other formats for future reference if required. Word Document 508 Checklist

Positive Attributes

Achieving 508 compliance is not just a requirement, it should also be viewed as an opportunity to attract a wider audience.

Almost 20% of Americans have some form of disability and over half of adults with a recognized disability, use the internet on a frequent basis. A large percentage of these people also say that they are highly likely to do business with companies who are committed to diversity and equal treatment of employees.

Section 508 compliance can also help your SEO and Marketing initiatives as an accessible website has better visibility to search engines, which will boost your rankings and allow the web crawlers that are used to read a website, to evaluate your content more easily than a site that is not compliant.

Consider the positive attributes of Section 508 compliancy and everyone is likely to benefit when your website has great usability and accessibility, regardless of disability.

Useful Sites


Section 508 Accessible Site Badge

Show your website visitors that you care about accessibility.
Simply copy and paste the html below to display this “Accessible Site” badge on your website.
Accessible Site Badge