a history timeline with accessibility and 508 icons

A History of Section 508 Accessibility

A first-hand experience implementing Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

In The Beginning: ADA and Section 508

In 1990, I was an almost-brand-new Federal employee and I had the opportunity to attend the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I clearly remember it was a hot and sun shining day on the White House lawn on July 26th. Even then, I knew that improving IT accessibility in the Federal government was a huge job, and boy was I right.

In general, the ADA applied to the commercial world and the built-physical environment, not the Federal government. It took a long time to establish that the ADA also was applicable to the digital world as well. In 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was updated to address accessibility. Essentially, Section 508 regulation boils down to this: when the Federal government develops, procures, maintains, or uses electronic and communications technology it must ensure that persons with disabilities are provided comparable access to and use of that which is provided to persons without disabilities.

The strategy of Section 508 is to get the purchasing power of the Federal government to select products that were more accessible over those which were less accessible, and thus create motivation in the industry to tackle long-standing accessibility gaps. Assistive technology for people with disabilities can seem magical by providing accessibility to previously inaccessible things. However, when the underlying technologies also do their part and provide information and operability for those assistive technologies to stand on, far more accessibility can be achieved.

Section 508 takes a systematic approach by providing accessibility standards for information and communications technology to make assistive technology use more feasible across-the-board.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

To set the stage, most devices were single purpose— faxes were still in heavy use, DSL was the hot networking connection, Google was still growing, Microsoft IE was ruling the internet, online stores were really, really new, touchscreens were only used on kiosks, audio-description was sometimes made available as a special release of a movie, Windows 98 was it, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence were sci-fi, and computers were so much less capable as compared to now as to boggle the mind.

Also, accessibility tools were nearly nonexistent. IT developers had almost no educational materials to know what to do to make their products accessible, and they had almost no awareness that they needed to do so in the first place.

Federal agencies may have had accessibility policies related to hiring and providing reasonable accommodations but they definitely didn’t have policies about accessibility for IT. As for me, I was a mainframe programmer for the IRS but was soon to take up accessibility full time at the IRS.

Where to Start?

In 1999, when I started full-time accessibility at the IRS, the team focused on providing IT reasonable accommodations and Section 508 was new. As a former IT professional and an internet service operator at the time, I knew in order to succeed in accessibility that we would need the IT people to build and buy accessibility or the gaps would remain permanently wide open for people with disabilities.

In 1999, I participated in identifying answers to the first Department of Justice Section 508 survey. We tested twenty pages across twenty IRS websites and answered a set of questions vaguely related to the to-be-released Section 508 web standards. We used assistive technology for manual testing, as we didn’t have a test process or automated web testing tools. Needless to say, the results weren’t good, which was expected given how new accessibility was in the IT world.

In 2001, when Section 508 regulations became enforceable in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, we prepared materials for education across the agency. We worked on creating outreach activities for the IRS IT workforce, educational resources for document authors and web developers, testing procedures, and acquisition requirements.

We developed Section 508 requirements within IRS enterprise architecture reviews and a great deal of those foundational things are still humming along today. We also purchased an enterprise automated testing tool and began to figure out how to get it inserted in website development processes, but the tools were at that time extremely limited—but they did help!

Nail It – Then Scale It

In 2005, I moved from IRS to the Department of Homeland Security as the Deputy of the DHS Office of Accessibility and Technology and was able to apply lessons learned from one agency to many. We had the opportunity at DHS to establish a new Accessibility Program with leadership visibility and buy-in and greenfield to build in.

At DHS, everything was being reinvented when twenty-two agencies came under the DHS umbrella. We established a Department office and then established a policy requiring each agency (for example, the Transportation Security Agency or Customs and Border Protection) to establish and maintain their own Accessibility Programs. This hub and spoke strategy worked well because it allowed each agency to size their Accessibility Programs appropriately.

My team also developed a DHS-wide policy, integrated accessibility into IT governance, hosted outreach activities, created educational materials, developed lifecycle accessibility requirements, and operated a helpdesk. Starting to sound familiar? I can truly say that my experience at IRS and DHS both have shown me that building accessibility into organizations requires culture change and that there are many moving parts that must be addressed to achieve success.

Sharing is Caring

One of the things I believe the Federal government does not do as well as it could is collaborate across agency lines. Because of this, Federal accessibility efforts across agencies were each creating the same things independently, and often with slight variations. This confused vendors looking in from the outside and even employees who moved from one agency to another.

In 2012, several Federal agencies came together and established the Federal Accessibility Community of Practice (ACOP). The intention of this program was to bring together accessibility best practices so that agencies with new accessibility programs would not have to keep reinventing the wheel. Today, the ACOP has a great set of resources available and new Section 508 leaders in the government no longer need to start from scratch!

One additional challenge faced at organizations where multiple accessibility products are tested is deciphering what is a valid test. Without knowing this answer, decision making in fast-paced IT governance environments is nearly impossible.

As part of the ACOP, DHS and the Social Security Administration and other Federal contributors created the government-wide Trusted Tester Program. This established a common test process and tester skill certification so the question of, “Is this valid?” could be removed during lifecycle decision-making activities. Today, the Trusted Tester Program is free and online and there are over 1,000 certified Trusted Testers.

Keeping Pace with Technology: Section 508 Refresh

Section 508 standards were created in the late 1990s, and while they were organized and reasonably technology-neutral, over time technologies changed, converged, and evolved and those standards became less and less applicable and comprehensive.

In 2006, I had the honor of participating in the advisory council to update the Section 508 standards, an effort which took nearly the remainder of my time in Federal service. The new standards are more technology-neutral, are more harmonized with global accessibility standards, rely on industry standards to a greater extent, and address current technology far better. However, this update, released in 2017, required a huge update of the existing Federal resources for Section 508 and this is still taking place as it takes time to implement such broad sweeping standards.

Where Are We Now?

While I feel the acquisition strategy is just now starting to work after almost twenty years, the efforts of hundreds of dedicated Federal employees and their contract support personnel are making a huge difference in the lives of both Federal employees and customers with disabilities. The Commercial Industry is also ramping up accessibility, which the Federal government directly benefits from.

The Federal government was early in this effort, but as with most things in the Federal space, slow is the general pace. Federal employees now have methods for escalating accessibility issues. The Commercial Industry has been notified that accessibility is a priority in the government. Many things work now which would not have without the multiple different Accessibility programs and strategies agencies undertook over the past twenty years.

What’s Next?

I retired from Federal service at the end of 2018 and am now working at Deque Systems in the Accessibility Program office as a Senior Accessibility Program Consultant helping organizations to establish and grow their digital accessibility transformation initiatives without needing to reinvent the wheel themselves. I have learned a great deal now from the outside looking in. There are truly outstanding resources for Federal Programs to make use of.

I believe that now is the time to embrace optimizing accessibility for developer communities by fully incorporating accessibility tools. This includes implementing accessibility tools that require a lower developer skill level to achieve success, pushing accessibility checking as far left in the design and development cycle as possible, and also providing on-the-job training. These strategies combined is how to get developers to be successful and to teach them how to avoid accessibility mistakes as they go.

In addition, I think that recent efforts to create methodologies for nontechnical Federal personnel to follow when evaluating IT acquisitions will begin to produce results in Federal agencies selecting more accessible products over less accessible alternatives. This will really start making the fact that accessibility is important clear in those portions of industry that are still coming up-to-speed on this important topic.

I look forward to finding more and more that my IT– such as online conferencing, training, or shopping– just works out of the box and that accessibility challenges soon become unordinary temporary errors.

Finally, I believe hiring people with disabilities as Federal employees is good for the government and the taxpaying public. I am hesitantly hopeful for the future of accessibility within the Federal government. Lastly, I hope the current pandemic does not stop accessibility efforts which are only more important now more than ever. We’ve come a long way but still have a great deal more to do.

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