The Access Board is an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. On December 21, 2000, the Board issued accessibility standards for electronic and information technology under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended. The Board also develops and maintains accessibility guidelines for the built environment, transit vehicles, and telecommunications equipment under other laws and enforces design standards for federally funded facilities. Presented here is an overview of the new standards for electronic and information technology and section 508. Questions about the 508 standards should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act and strengthened provisions covering access to information in the Federal sector. As amended, section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires access to the Federal government's electronic and information technology. The law covers all types of electronic and information technology in the Federal sector and is not limited to assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. It applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use such technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and the public to the extent it does not pose an "undue burden." The law directs the Access Board to develop access standards for this technology that will become part of the Federal procurement regulations.
The scope of section 508 is limited to the Federal sector. It does not apply to the private sector, nor does it generally impose requirements on the recipients of Federal funds with the exception of activities carried out in a State under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended pursuant to section 4(d)(6)(G) of that act.
Shortly after the law was enacted, the Access Board created an advisory committee to develop recommendations on the standards to be developed. In May 1999, the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) completed its work and presented its recommendations to the Board. The committee consisted of 27 representatives from industry, various disability organizations, and other groups with an interest in the issues to be addressed. On March 31, 2000, the Board published proposed standards based closely on the committee's report. The proposed standards were available for public comment for 60 days through publication in the Federal Register. The Board sought information and comment on various issues through questions it posed in a discussion provided in the proposed rule. Over 100 individuals and organizations submitted comments on the standards. Comments were submitted by Federal agencies, representatives of the information technology industry, disability groups, and persons with disabilities. The Board finalized the standards according to its review of the comments and republished them in the Federal Register. The final standards, which will become part of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, will help Federal agencies determine whether or not a technology product or system is accessible.
Section 508 uses the Federal procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the Federal government is accessible. The law also sets up an administrative process under which individuals with disabilities can file a complaint alleging that a Federal agency has not complied with the standards. This process uses the same complaint procedures established under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which covers access to Federally funded programs and services). Individuals may also file a civil action against an agency to seek injunctive relief and attorney's fees (but not compensatory or punitive damages). The enforcement provisions of section 508 take effect six months from the date the Board published its final standards. The Board published its standards on December 21, 2000. Therefore, the enforcement provisions of section 508 are effective as of June 21, 2001. (Originally, they were to take effect August 7, 2000, but section 508 was further amended to allow time for compliance after publication of the standards).
By statute, the enforcement provisions of section 508 apply only to electronic and information technology procured on or after the effective date. As a result, section 508 does not authorize complaints or lawsuits to retrofit technology procured before this date to meet the Board's standards. However, even though section 508's enforcement mechanisms apply only to procurement, the law does require access to technology developed, used or maintained by a Federal agency. Further, other sections of the Rehabilitation Act require access to Federal programs (section 504) and accommodation of Federal employees with disabilities (sections 501 and 504); it is possible that Federal agencies will use the Board's section 508 standards as a yardstick to measure compliance with these other sections of the law.
A Federal agency does not have to comply with the technology accessibility standards if it would impose an undue burden to do so. This is consistent with language used in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other civil rights legislation, where the term `undue burden' has been defined as "significant difficulty or expense." However, the agency must explain why meeting the standards would pose an undue burden for a given procurement action, and must still provide people with disabilities access to the information or data that is affected.