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Section 508 deadlines loom – what does this mean for technical writers?

Contents:

What is Section 508?

Section 508 revised standards

Section 508 and accessibility resources

 

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What is Section 508?

If you are already familiar with the original Section 508 law, you can jump to Section 508 Revised Standards for information on updates that need to be in place by January 18, 2018.

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires federal agencies to ensure all information technology products that agencies produce and employ are accessible by people with disabilities. This law applies when federal agencies procure, develop, use, or maintain electronics and information technology. This means that under the Section 508 rule, federal government agencies must provide disabled employees and members of the public access to their information that is as usable as what is available to non-disabled persons.

Information Technology must be able to be used effectively by people with disabilities to be considered compliant.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 56.7 million (or 18.7% of) Americans have some type of disability. So, whether you are a federal agency or not, if everyone cannot access your information, you are excluding a large part of the population from reading what you write. It is our job as content creators to ensure everyone has access to the information we produce.

Since this law was enacted in 2001, you are likely following these guidelines already if you work with or for a federal agency or if you want to ensure your content is accessible. If you aren’t required to follow Section 508 rules but would like to become compliant, please see the Resources section at the bottom of this post.

 

Section 508 Revised Standards

Revisions to Section 508 apply to all forms of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) developed, procured, maintained, or utilized by federal agencies. Section 508 not only applies to hardware and software, but also to documentation and digital content, and there are some specific changes that you should be aware of if you are a technical writer.

Changes to the existing guidelines as they relate to documentation and digital content as per GSA’s Accessibility website are as follows:

  • Documentation for hardware and software products must include how to use accessibility and compatibility features integrated into these tools
  • Electronic documents must adhere to the same requirements as electronic content
  • Documentation must be made available in a non-electronic format upon request
  • Support services such as help desks, training services, call centers, and automated technical support must include information on access and compatibility features for customers with disabilities

 

Important 508 deadlines

There are some important deadlines for federal agencies coming up for adherence to revised Section 508 rules:

July 18, 2017

Federal agencies must incorporate revised standards into their acquisition regulations and procurement policies and directives

January 18, 2018

Federal agencies must be in compliance with new standards


Updates to Section 508 are for all non-procured ICT by federal agencies.

Just like the original 508 standards, the new standards apply to all public-facing content, such as social media, website content, documentation, and blog posts. This rule also pertains to non-public facing content and inter-agency tools used for official business communications.

These new guidelines only apply to ICT developed after the deadline of January 18, 2018. Any ICT developed prior to that date does not need to be updated. However, if any changes are made to legacy ICT after the new standards are implemented, then the legacy ICT must also be updated to the new Section 508 standards, as per the “Safe Harbor” rule.

If you are interested in learning about all changes to software, hardware, digital content, and documentation, visit the United States Access Board’s Text of the Standards and Guidelines site.

 

Section 508 and accessibility resources:

Accessibility Checker for Microsoft Office Products

Web Accessibility Initiative

Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA)

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

GSA’s Section 508 Tutorials and Guidelines

HHS – Guidelines for Microsoft Office, PDF, and HTML

Usability.gov

Official Section 508 Website

Section 508 Best Practices

Online course at JimThatcher.com

 

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