The original Section 508 standards were published in the Federal Register on December 21, 2000 when most webpages were stagnant, written in HTML alone and did not have much dynamic content. Thirteen years later, websites are more important to a business than the sign out front and the lines between applications and websites have blurred. However, Section 508 standards remain unchanged.
The final rule on the standards is expected to take place sometime between December 2013 and January 2014, when the regulatory assessment process is completed. The Access Board proposal for the refresh of Section 508 will cover more documents, more technology and more people. The full scope is still not defined. The Access Board proposes directly referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) level A and AA success criteria, not only for web content but also for web applications, software, and documents in general.
When the Section 508 standards were released in 2000, there was a clear distinction between the analog world and the digital world. No one thought that a touch screen device would be popular with blind users and that the technology would be able to provide an accessible platform. Today, everything is digital and the standards need to address that.
The current Section 508 standards organization is arbitrary and applies divisions between different technologies such as hardware, software and telephony. Consequently, applications on a smartphone device will need to be checked against all section 508 standards in order to assess their conformance. Some of the Section 508 standards are inadequate since they only address content in the form of HTML. But content can also be a document such as PDF, Word, Excel or any other type. Important accessibility needs of end-users are not sufficiently covered by the standards. Some of the provisions in Section 508 are even counterproductive. For example, they mention that pages need to work without Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). In 2000 CSS did not working well with Assistive Technology (AT), however, today CSS is used to improve accessibility.
Since the Section 508 standards are old, the current standards allow for “equivalent facilitation” (1194.5), and since there is a movement in the world towards using international standards, agencies need not wait until the new Section 508 standards are released but can start using WCAG 2.0. Even the European Union is moving toward the adoption of WCAG 2.0, which was also recently approved by ISO and translated to several languages.
The bottom line is that there are important success criteria that are not addressed by 508’s current provisions. The WCAG 2.0 success criteria are more precise, objectively testable, widely used internationally and translated to many languages. Agencies are encouraged to use WCAG 2.0 for assessing the accessibility of their content.
For more information refer to the Accessibility online webinar that was given by the U.S Access Board as part of a collaborative program between the ADA National Network and the U.S. Access Board on July 11, 2013.