GSA Government-wide Section 508 Accessibility Program

How to Update Agency Accessibility Policies

The transition from the Original 508 Standards to the Revised 508 Standards is an opportunity for agencies to revisit and update your Section 508, 501, and 504 policies. Policies on how your agency implements each Section of the Rehabilitation Act should be closely aligned, to clarify responsibilities and determine how to respond to claims of discrimination on the basis of disability. 

Your accessibility policies should explain that your agency is obligated to:

  1. Make Information and Communication Technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities; and
  2. Accommodate the needs of employees and program participants, while meeting the Revised 508 requirements.

These policies should acknowledge that failing to meet these obligations could result in unlawful discrimination against people with disabilities, and put the agency at risk. 

User Needs

The Revised 508 Standards include the following NEW requirement for federal agencies:

  • E203.2 User Needs - When agencies procure, develop, maintain, or use ICT they shall identify the needs of users with disabilities to determine:
    • How users with disabilities will perform the functions supported by the ICT; and
    • How the ICT will be developed, installed, configured, and maintained to support users with disabilities.

Sample Policy Language

Agencies should update either the Scope or Roles and Responsibilities section of your policy:

Recommended language for Scope section:

(XX Agency) will identify the needs of users with disabilities when it procures, develops, maintains, or uses Information and Communication Technology (ICT).  This will include a determination of how users with disabilities will perform the functions supported by the ICT and how the ICT will be developed, installed, configured, and maintained to support users with disabilities.

Recommended language for Roles and Responsibilities section:

The Chief Information Officer will ensure that the needs of users with disabilities are identified when XX Agency procures, develops, maintains, or uses Information and Communication Technology (ICT).  This will include a determination of how users with disabilities will perform the functions supported by the ICT and how the ICT will be developed, installed, configured, and maintained to support users with disabilities.

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Electronic Content – Public Facing and Official Agency Communications

The Revised 508 Standards include the following NEW requirement for federal agencies:

  • Electronic content shall comply with E205, which includes:
    • E205.1 General
    • E205.2 Public Facing
    • E205.3 Agency Official Communication
    • E205.4 Accessibility Standard
      • E205.4.1 Word Substitution when Applying WCAG to Non-Web Documents

Refer to E205 Electronic Content for the full text of the requirement.

Recommended Implementation

While the Original 508 Standards required agencies to make electronic information and data accessible, they did not clearly establish the scope of coverage for non-Web electronic content. Because this was not clearly addressed in the Original 508 Standards, agency accessibility policies may not address this type of content. Recommended steps to help your agency conform to the Revised 508 Standards include:

  • Review your accessibility policies, and update them to address that public-facing content, and specific categories of non-public facing content, are required to conform to the Revised 508 Standards;
  • Educate your workforce about the updated policies, and provide training if necessary, to ensure that these responsibilities are met; and
  • Collaborate with your Communications and Public Affairs Offices to ensure that any internal communications policies are also updated to conform to the Revised 508 Standards, and remain consistent with those of the agency 508 Program.

Agencies should also assign responsibility for the following activities to relevant employees:

  • Maintain an inventory of digital content, public facing and agency official communications;
  • Identify ownership of the digital content;
  • Measure the agency’s baseline level of compliance;
  • Determine the agency’s evaluation approach and methodology;  
  • Report regularly on compliance with the digital content requirements.   

Sample Policy Language

Update your agency policy to cover electronic content. Recommended language for a broad policy statement:

XXX Agency will ensure that all electronic content that is made available to the public on or after January 18, 2018, such as web pages, blogs and social media, conforms to the Section 508 standards.

XXX Agency will ensure that electronic content used for official agency communications on or after January 18, 2018, including such content posted to the agency Intranet, conforms to the applicable Section 508 standards. This requirement applies to the following types of official agency communications:

A. An emergency notification;

B. An initial or final decision adjudicating an administrative claim or proceeding;

C. An internal or external program or policy announcement;

D. A notice of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity, or personnel action;

E. A formal acknowledgement of receipt;

F. A survey questionnaire;

G. A template or form;

H. Educational or training materials; or

I. Intranet content designed as a Web page.

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Legacy ICT General Exception

The Revised 508 Standards include the following NEW requirement for federal agencies:

  • E202.2 Legacy ICT - Any component or portion of existing ICT that complies with an earlier standard issued pursuant to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (as republished in Appendix D), and that has not been altered on or after January 18, 2018, shall not be required to be modified to conform to the Revised 508 Standards.

Safe Harbor for Existing ICT

The Revised 508 Standards were issued on January 18, 2017, giving agencies one year (until January 18, 2018) to transition from the Original to the Revised 508 Standards. In addition to this transition period, existing (legacy) ICT does not have to be updated to conform to the Revised 508 Standards if it already complied with the Original 508 Standards prior to the compliance date of January 18, 2018 (see E202.2 Legacy ICT). This exception is sometimes called a “safe harbor” for existing ICT.

However, when existing ICT is altered, the portion(s) of the ICT that are altered must conform to the Revised 508 Standards. Those portions of the ICT that are unaltered and that complied with the Original 508 Standards before the compliance date still qualify for the exception for legacy ICT. The Revised 508 Standards define an “alteration” as “A change to existing ICT that affects interoperability, the user interface, or access to information or data” (see E103 Definitions).

To demonstrate eligibility for the exception, an agency should:

  1. Test the ICT prior to the implementation date;
  2. Have a record of the test results; and
  3. Test and track updates to the ICT using the Revised 508 Standards.

An agency that does not or cannot demonstrate the conformance of their legacy ICT should not rely on the safe harbor exception as an effective tool for conformance.

Recommended Implementation

Update your agency accessibility policies to take advantage of a new and narrowly defined exception for legacy ICT, which provides that legacy ICT conforming to the Original 508 Standards on or before January 18, 2018 remains conformant unless it is altered. When altered, the ICT must conform to the Revised 508 Standards. Be sure to include an effective date for each policy revision.

Sample Policy Language

Existing ICT (legacy ICT) that conforms to the Original 508 Standards is not required to be modified to comply with the Revised 508 Standards. This provision only applies to the component(s) or function(s) of the ICT determined to be compliant, and only to the extent that such components of the ICT are not altered. The effective date of this revision to the Technology Accessibility Policy is January 18, 2018.

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Maintenance/Monitoring Spaces General Exception

The Revised 508 Standards include the following UPDATED requirement for federal agencies:

Relevant section of the Original 508 Standards:

  • 1194.3 (f) Products located in spaces frequented only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or occasional monitoring of equipment are not required to comply with this part.

Relevant section of the Revised 508 Standards:

  • E202.5 ICT Functions Located in Maintenance or Monitoring Spaces - Where status indicators and operable parts for ICT functions are located in spaces that are frequented only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or occasional monitoring of equipment, such status indicators and operable parts shall not be required to conform to the Revised 508 Standards.

Background

Some agencies interpreted 1194.3 (f) in the Original 508 Standards to mean that products located in “spaces frequented only by service personnel” were altogether exempt from the   Standards. Therefore, some agencies did not require these products to meet the 508 Standards in their solicitations.

The Revised 508 Standards narrow this exception by focusing on only those elements of the ICT (status indicators and operable parts) that would be difficult to make accessible when located in such spaces.

  • Operable part - Defined in the rule as “Hardware-based user controls for activating, deactivating, or adjusting ICT.”  Example of operable parts include such things as the latch on server rack frames that releases each individual hard disk drives, or a reset button on a server that must be pressed to restart the server.
  • Status Indicator - An example of a status indicator is the small light that blinks on a hard disk drive to indicate that it is being accessed, or that it has failed.

This narrowing of the exception recognizes that many types of ICT located in maintenance or monitoring spaces are maintained and monitored remotely. This revised exception does not apply to software or remotely available administrative tools used to access and manage products located in maintenance or monitoring spaces.

Recommended Implementation

Review your agency’s acquisition policies in light of the narrowed scope of the exception. Rewrite policies that formerly exempted entire products based on their location in maintenance or monitoring spaces (also known as “back office” locations) to exempt only the status indicators and operable parts of such products.  

Sample Policy Language

Status indicators and operable parts for ICT that is located in spaces frequented only by service personnel for maintenance, repair, or occasional monitoring of equipment are not required to conform to the Revised 508 Standards.

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Undue Burden General Exception

The Revised 508 Standards include the following UPDATED requirement for federal agencies:

Relevant sections of the Original 508 Standards:

  • 1194.2 (a) Products covered by this part shall comply with all applicable provisions of this part. When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each agency shall ensure that the products comply with the applicable provisions of this part, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.
  • 1194.2 (a)(1) When compliance with the provisions of this part imposes an undue burden, agencies shall provide individuals with disabilities with the information and data involved by an alternative means of access that allows the individual to use the information and data.
  • 1194.2 (a) (2) When procuring a product, if an agency determines that compliance with any provision of this part imposes an undue burden, the documentation by the agency supporting the procurement shall explain why, and to what extent, compliance with each such provision creates an undue burden.

Relevant sections of the Revised 508 Standards:

  • E202.6 Undue Burden or Fundamental Alteration
  • E202.6.1 Basis for a Determination of Undue Burden
  • E202.6.2 Required Documentation
  • E202.6.3 Alternative Means

Refer to E202 General Exceptions for the full text of the requirement.

Background

The Revised 508 Standards clarify that the exception for undue burden applies only to those features or functions of the ICT for which providing accessibility would impose an undue burden (significant difficulty or expense). Generally, the undue burden exception will not exempt an entire product from all accessibility requirements.

For the undue burden exception to apply, the Revised 508 Standards explicitly require the responsible agency official to document in writing the basis for determining that conformance to the requirements would constitute an undue burden on the agency. Written determinations of undue burden should identify:

  • The specific requirements that would impose an undue burden;
  • The components and functions of the ICT affected; and
  • What factors contributed to the decision (e.g., extent of the difficulty, costs associated with conformance, and/or the unavailability of agency resources allowing conformance).

Features and functions of the product that are not included in the undue burden justification must still conform to the Revised 508 Standards.  

Recommended Implementation

If the agency policy refers to the Section 508 exception for undue burden, the policy should recognize that the undue burden exception only applies to functions or features of an ICT product that cannot be made accessible without imposing significant difficulty or expense.  

The roles and responsibilities section of the policy should designate the agency official responsible for making the final determination for an undue burden exception, and for documenting in writing the basis for that determination.  

Sample Policy Language

The exception for Undue Burden is only applicable to the specific functions or features of an ICT product that cannot be made accessible without imposing significant difficulty or expense on the agency or component of the agency that will use the ICT.  (XXX Agency Official) is responsible for making the final determination whether conformance to specific requirements of the Revised 508 Standards would impose an undue burden on the agency.  This determination must be in writing and must include an explanation of the basis for the decision, including why and to what extent conformance to specific requirements would result in an undue burden on the agency.

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Fundamental Alteration General Exception

The Revised 508 Standards include the following UPDATED requirement for federal agencies:

Relevant sections of the Original 508 Standards:

  • 1194.3 (e) This part shall not be construed to require a fundamental alteration in the nature of a product or its components.

Relevant sections of the Revised 508 Standards:

  • E202.6 Undue Burden or Fundamental Alteration. Where an agency determines in accordance with E202.5 that conformance to requirements in the Revised 508 Standards would impose an undue burden or would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the ICT, conformance shall be required only to the extent that it does not impose an undue burden, or result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the ICT.

Background

Both the Original 508 Standards and the Revised 508 Standards state that an exception is permitted when an agency determines that conformance to the 508 requirements would fundamentally alter the nature of the ICT.

The Revised Section 508 Standards also includes a requirement that the responsible agency official must document in writing the basis for determining that conformance to requirements would fundamentally alter the nature of the ICT.

Recommended Implementation

The roles and responsibilities section of the policy should designate the agency official who is responsible for authorizing a fundamental alteration exception and for documenting in writing the basis for that determination.

Sample Policy Language

(XXX Agency Official) is responsible for reviewing requests for and making a determination that conformance to the Section 508 standards would fundamentally alter the nature of a specific ICT product.  This determination must be in writing and must include an explanation of the basis for the decision, including how conformance would fundamentally alter the nature of the product.”

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National Security Systems General Exception

The Revised 508 Standards include the following UPDATED requirement for federal agencies:

Relevant sections of the Original 508 Standards:

  • 1194.3 (a) This part does not apply to any electronic and information technology operated by agencies, the function, operation, or use of which involves intelligence activities, cryptologic activities related to national security, command and control of military forces, equipment that is an integral part of a weapon or weapons system, or systems which are critical to the direct fulfillment of military or intelligence missions.  Systems which are critical to the direct fulfillment of military or intelligence missions do not include a system that is to be used for routine administrative and business applications (including payroll, finance, logistics, and personnel management applications).

Relevant sections of the Revised 508 Standards:

  • E202.3 National Security Systems. The Revised 508 Standards do not apply to ICT operated by agencies as part of a national security system, as defined by 40 U.S.C. 11103(a).

Recommended Implementation

The Original 508 Standards include the definition of “National Security Systems” from the federal law regarding information technology management.  The Revised 508 Standards refer to the same definition in the U.S. Code (40 U.S.C. 11103(a)) rather than re-stating it.  Therefore, no policy or operational changes are necessary.

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Alternative Means

The Revised 508 Standards include the following UPDATED requirement for federal agencies:

Relevant sections of the Original 508 Standards:

  • § 1194.2 Application (a) (1) When compliance with the provisions of this part imposes an undue burden, agencies shall provide individuals with disabilities with the information and data involved by an alternative means of access that allows the individual to use the information and data.

Relevant sections of the Revised 508 Standards:

  • E202.6 Undue Burden or Fundamental Alteration
    • E202.6.3 Alternative Means. Where conformance to one or more requirements in the Revised 508 Standards imposes an undue burden or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the ICT, the agency shall provide individuals with disabilities access to and use of information and data by an alternative means that meets identified needs.
  • E202.7 Best Meets
    • E202.7.2 Alternative Means. Where ICT that fully conforms to the Revised 508 Standards is not commercially available, the agency shall provide individuals with disabilities access to and use of information and data by an alternative means that meets identified needs.

Background

When agencies approve an undue burden exception, fundamental alteration exception, or best meets exception, Section E202.6.3 provides that the agency must provide “individuals with disabilities access to and use of information and data by an alternative means that meets identified needs.”

Recommended Implementation

The general policy statement within an agency policy should make clear that the agency is responsible for ensuring that individuals with disabilities will have access to and use of information and data by an alternative means that meets identified needs. The key words of this requirement are “access to and use of.”  The alternative means provided must make the same information and data available. It should not make it more difficult for people with disabilities to use the ICT than the methods available to others. Alternative means may include assistive technology or different technologies and reasonable accommodations.  Examples include, but are not limited to, voice, fax, relay service, TTYs, qualified sign language interpreters, Internet posting, captioning, text-to-speech synthesis, readers, personal assistants, or audio descriptions.  

For each exception, the agency should conduct an analysis of the specific requirements in the Revised 508 Standards that cannot be met, which types of individuals with disabilities are likely to be affected, and what specific alternative methods will be effective and made available to people with the affected disabilities.  

Sample Policy Language

When XXX agency makes a determination that an exception to the Section 508 standards is appropriate, XXX agency will provide access to the information and data to people with disabilities by alternative means.  XXX agency will identify in advance the needs of people with disabilities affected by each exception and implement a plan to meet these needs through alternative means.”

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Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 508 is just one part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and when developing policy, an agency should keep the other parts of the Act in perspective. 

  • Section 508 is part of Title V of the Act, with other provisions that relate to the civil rights of people with disabilities.
  • Section 501 requires affirmative action and nondiscrimination in employment by Federal agencies of the executive branch.
  • Section 504 states that "no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under" any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service.

Sections 501, 504, and 508 are separate laws with different goals. They are complimentary and sometimes more than one will apply to a particular situation. Together they ensure non-discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors. 

Compliance with one Section does not ensure compliance with the other Sections. For example, if Information and Communication Technology (ICT) qualifies for one of the exceptions in the Revised Section 508 Standards, agencies still have obligations to not discriminate under Section 501 or 504. Conversely, if an agency provides its employees or members of the public accommodations to meet their unique individual disability-related needs, doing so does not remove the obligation under Section 508 to make ICT compliant with the Revised 508 Standards. Most agencies appropriately manage each of these sections through different departments or business areas (e.g., Human Resources may manage Section 501 and 504, while the CIO manages Section 508).  Because these legal obligations are so interrelated, you should look upon issuance of the Revised 508 Standards as an opportunity to develop better communications and cooperation between these interrelated agency functions. 

Increasingly Section 501 and 504 complaints and lawsuits focus on barriers to technology experienced by members of the public or employees with disabilities. The end result often is that the agency must develop a more robust Section 508 program to address the immediate concern and minimize future risk.

These best practices were developed by the U.S. Federal Government Revised 508 Standards Transition Workgroup. Members include the U.S. Federal CIO Council Accessibility Community of Practice, the U.S. Access Board, and the General Services Administration.

Page Reviewed/Updated: October 2017