In the United States, agencies and companies contracted by the government are required to follow certain guidelines to make sure their products or services are accessible to people with disabilities. This extends to digital media and information technology, under what’s known as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. These guidelines are set by the Access Board, an independent government agency, and were originally written with websites in mind. However, since the guidelines’ inception in 2000 the guidelines have not been revised despite huge progress and innovation in technology. Unsurprisingly, these standards are viewed as outdated and ambiguous.
This is changing. On September 14, 2016, the Access Board approved a new version of Section 508 that meets today’s technical climate and the accepted standards of other independent groups. The new set of guidelines need to be approved by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and published in the Federal Register to become official.
What do these new guidelines include? What’s the impact? Here are the top changes.
- Instead of using guidelines written by the Access Board, it’s now recommended that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), be used. The WCAG standards have been in place for years and are highly regarded throughout the industry. The Access Board recognizes this, and making the WCAG official ensures that as it’s revised, government organizations will keep their digital properties accessible. To read more about the WCAG standards, take a look at our previous article on accessibility.
- Software applications now have the requirement of real-time text transcription in two-way messaging applications. In products such as TTD/TTY phones, users with disabilities will be able to see the other party’s messages while they are being written. The Access Board wants to bring this style of communication to more products so the hard of hearing and others have a more consistent communication experience. Here is an example of a real-time text communication product: CapTel, a phone and service that transcribes voice conversations into text on the phone with the help of a call center agent. Watch a video about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYzkREIkXLo
- The new regulations also affect other types of software and electronic media, including mobile apps and electronic documents. The Access Board states that the current standards have resulted in the inconsistent application of accessibility rules. The proposed standards more thoroughly define what is covered under Section 508. In the majority of cases, the WCAG standards will be used to assess the accessibility of these materials.
- Software applications will be judged for their compatibility with assistive technology products. In the past, accessibility requirements could be interpreted in a variety of ways, resulting in products that didn’t fully integrate with assistive technologies. For example, a web application could work with screen readers, but not with Braille displays. With the Section 508 revisions, the Access Board hopes to bring clarity to “how operating systems, software development toolkits, and software applications should interact with assistive technology.” Their goal is to make people aware of the different assistive technology products on the market and ensure that developed products are compatible.
The Access Board recognizes that the current Section 508 standards are way past their time, and are steadfastly moving towards updating them. The recognition of the WCAG standards means the process of updating Section 508 doesn’t have to be done on a regular basis in the future, while still ensuring the latest accessibility guidelines and trends set by those in the industry are in use. With these new standards hopefully being put to practice soon, the United States showcases that it recognizes today’s trends and ensures that people with disabilities will have equal access to technology products for years to come.