Last week, accessibility took a step forward. The refresh of the Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology passed another hurdle on its long journey to being updated for the first time since its release in December 2000.
The Section 508 Amendment to the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that all information and communication technology developed, procured or used by the federal government be accessible. The requirements, however, were written when the majority of people in the United States didn’t use the Internet or mobile devices, and before the more advanced web technologies could be made fully accessible. It has been surpassed by worldwide standards and technologies, including Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Accessible Rich Internet Applications 1.0 (WAI-ARIA), and HTML 5.
The United States Access Board, an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, announced approval of updated requirements for Section 508. This means that the proposed rule will move forward to obtain approval from the Office of Management and Budget – the last step prior to finalization. This refresh will update the technologically ancient Section 508 requirements by using these newer global standards. The WCAG 2.0 standard is especially important, as the Section 508 Refresh will apply WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirements to all content, including non-web software and all electronic documentation – not just web content.
Version 6.1 of the IBM Accessibility Checklist unifies its guidance for each checkpoint, using the Guidance on Applying WCAG 2.0 to Non-Web Information and Communications Technologies published by the World Wide Web Consortium, to apply interpretation of various web-centric WCAG 2.0 criteria to non-web technologies. This allows both web and non-web teams to look at the same rationale and general techniques, then check for technology-specific additional information. We’ve also made sure this additional information quickly clarifies often-lengthy WCAG 2.0 documentation.
This transition period does have its challenges. At the same time that teams – especially software teams – need to adopt new techniques to meet WCAG 2.0 requirements, IBM must continue to report against the existing 508 standards in our Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs). Some of these requirements, like pages being usable without Cascading Style Sheets, were clearly written for a different age. Others have an uneven match with a related WCAG requirement, or no equivalent at all.
To address this, IBM has retained some current Section 508 requirements in the checklist to capture the idiosyncratic 16-year-old requirements, as well as add in stable requirements from the proposed February 2015 508 refresh NPRM. Making sure our reporting is accurate makes for a longer, and at times, seemingly repetitive checklist. IBM has provided guidance (software and web) on the best method of testing and completing these interim checklists until the updated standards are officially in place and enforceable.
Some may be asking: if the 508 Refresh is still pending and it could be up to a year before it is enforced, why is IBM making this change now?
Due to all the technological advances in the 16 years since the Section 508 standards were put in place, many U.S. departments and agencies, as well as non-government clients, have begun measuring accessibility against requirements in the newer worldwide standards (WCAG 2.0, HTML 5.0 and WAI-ARIA 1.0). This is understandable since users of assistive technology rely on current standards and software to do their jobs. IBM must meet our client expectations now. Waiting is not an option.
Looking ahead, IBM’s checklist will continue to merge into a more unified approach and we will add the remainder of the 508 Refresh requirements once it is published in the Federal Registry. The unified checklist will eventually allow teams to report harmonized U.S., European and other jurisdiction requirements, all from one checklist. For now, development teams can use the new 6.1 checklist to prepare for this transition.