Overview of Section 508
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that when federal departments and agencies procure, develop, maintain or use electronic and information technology (E&IT), subject to commercial availability, they must ensure that it complies with the Section 508 standards developed by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), unless doing so would pose an undue burden on the federal department or agency. The purpose of the law is to ensure that federal employees and members of the public with disabilities have access to the same information and data as employees and members of the public without disabilities.
Applicability. Section 508 applies to federal departments and agencies. Section 101(e)(3) of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (AT Act) requires that States receiving AT Act funds must also comply with Section 508 and the standards. Section 508 does not apply to public or private entities manufacturing and/or selling E&IT.
Impact. Individuals cannot bring civil actions against the private sector. However, companies who intend to sell or lease electronic and information technology to federal departments and agencies should be aware that Section 508 standards have been incorporated into the federal acquisition regulations (FAR). Companies may wish to review their E&IT to confirm compliance with the Section 508 standards.
While manufacturers are not required to modify their products, federal departments and agencies are required to give priority to procuring products which comply with the Section 508 standards. Additionally, depending on the terms of their contract, companies that misrepresent the degree to which the E&IT they sell or lease to the government meets the Section 508 standards may be liable to the government.
E&IT used by a company in the course of its business, but which will not be sold or leased to covered government entities, is not required to comply with Section 508 standards. For example, private web sites, not developed for a covered government entity, do not have to comply with Section 508 standards, but may be required to meet access requirements under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Scope. The technical standards of Subpart B of Section 508 provide criteria for various types of technologies:
- Software Applications and Operating Systems (1194.21)
- Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22)
- Telecommunications Products (1194.23)
- Video or Multimedia Products (1194.24)
- Self Contained, Closed Products (1194.25)
- Desktop and Portable Computers (1194.26)
Equivalent Facilitation Provision. Section 508 contains an "equivalent facilitation" provision, similar to the one in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, which permits alternative means of providing access.
Exemptions. E&IT can be exempt from the requirements of Section 508 if the E&IT is to be used for national security or if the E&IT is located in spaces frequented only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or occasional monitoring of equipment. The national security exemption is not a blanket exemption for all national security agencies. While information technology used in the processing or handling of information directly related to national security is exempt, E&IT that is used by agencies to perform non-intelligence related functions, such as administrative functions, may be subject to Section 508 requirements.
In order to qualify for the so called "back office" exemption products must be procured by the federal agency with the intention of placing the product in a location frequented only by service personnel and the products must be used only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or occasional monitoring. If the product is a software application then the software must only be used for maintenance, repair, or monitoring and must only be accessed or operated from a service location. Software associated with back office equipment that could be accessed from a front office terminal is not exempt.
Previously, single purchases made on the open market rather than under an existing contract that were less than $2,500 were exempt from Section 508 under the micro purchase exemption. However, this exemption expired on April 1st, 2005.
Enforcement. The enforcement provisions of Section 508 went into effect on June 21, 2001 - six months after the date the Access Board published its final standards. After June 21st, any individual with a disability may file a complaint alleging that a federal department or agency failed to comply with Section 508 by procuring noncompliant electronic and information technology. By statute, Section 508 only applies to issues relating to electronic and information technology procured after June 21, 2001. Complaints under Section 508 are to be filed with the federal department or agency alleged to be in noncompliance. The federal department or agency receiving the complaint must apply the complaint procedures established to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for resolving allegations of discrimination in a federally conducted program or activity. Individuals may also file a civil action against any noncompliant federal department or agency.