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In 1998 the US Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. § 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.
Section 508 was originally added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in 1986. The original section 508 dealt with electronic and information technologies, in recognition of the growth of this field.
In 1997, The Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act was proposed in the U.S. legislature to correct the shortcomings of the original section 508; the original Section 508 had turned out to be mostly ineffective, in part due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms. In the end, this Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act, with revisions, was enacted as the new Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in 1998.
Section 508 addresses legal compliance through the process of market research and government procurement and also has technical standards against which products can be evaluated to determine if they meet the technical compliance. Because technology can meet the legal provisions and be legally compliant (e.g., no such product exists at time of purchase) but may not meet the United States Access Board's technical accessibility standards, users are often confused between these two issues. Additionally, evaluation of compliance can be done only when reviewing the procurement process and documentation used when making a purchase or contracting for development, the changes in technologies and standards themselves, it requires a more detailed understanding of the law and technology than at first seems necessary.
There is nothing in section 508 that requires private web sites to comply unless they are receiving federal funds or under contract with a federal agency. Commercial best practices include voluntary standards and guidelines as the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Automatic accessibility checkers (engines) such as "IBM Rational Policy Tester" and AccVerify, refer to Section 508 guidelines but have difficulty in accurately testing content for accessibility.
In 2006, the United States Access Board organized the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) to review and recommend updates to its Section 508 standards and Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines. TEITAC issued its report to the Board in April 2008. The Board released drafts of proposed rules based on the committee's recommendations in 2010 and 2011 for public comment. In February 2015, the Board released a notice of proposed rulemaking for the Section 508 standards.
The original legislation mandated that the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the Access Board, establish a draft for their Final Standards for accessibility for such electronic and information technologies in December 2001. The final standards were approved in April 2001 and became enforceable on June 25, 2001.
The latest information about these standards and about support available from the Access Board in implementing them, as well as the results of surveys conducted to assess compliance, is available from the Board's newsletter Access Currents. The Section 508 standards, tools, and resources are available from the Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), in the U.S. General Services Administration's Office of Government-wide Policy.
When evaluating a computer hardware or software product which could be used in a U.S. government agency, information technology managers now look to see if the vendor has provided a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). A VPAT lists potential attributes of the product that affect the degree to which it is accessible. One issue is whether a software's functions can be executed from the keyboard, or whether they require the use of a mouse, because keyboards are usable by a wider spectrum of people. Because colorblindness is common, another issue is whether the device or software communicates necessary information only by differences in displayed color. Because not all users can hear, another issue is whether the device or software communicates necessary information in an auditory way. If the product can be configured to the user's preferences on these dimensions, that is usually considered a satisfactory adaptation to the Section 508 requirements. One challenge to the adoption of open-source software in the U.S. government has been that there is no vendor to provide support or write a VPAT, but a VPAT can be written by volunteers if they can find the necessary information.
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