Examining 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 508

Graphic recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act. The theme is listed below as "Advancing Access and Equity - Then, Now and Next

This year marks 50 years since a major milestone in our ongoing quest to advance access and equity for people with disabilities: the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Throughout the year, the Department of Labor is observing this important anniversary by examining its impact. As part of this, the Office of Disability Employment Policy Senior Policy Advisor Nathan Cunningham recently talked to Sachin Pavithran, Executive Director of the U.S. Access Board, which was established by the Rehab Act and plays a leading role in developing and maintaining standards under sections of it. 

I understand the Rehab Act established the Access Board—which means it’s your 50th anniversary this year too. Can you tell us about how it came to be included in the Act?

The Rehabilitation Act—specifically Section 502—created the Access Board, originally called the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The purpose of the Board was to enforce the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA) and develop accessibility standards. Prior to 1973, compliance with the ABA was uneven, due in part to a lack of oversight and standards. So, Congress determined that a central agency was needed to enforce it and develop standards for a wide range of federal and federally leased facilities, ranging from U.S. Post Offices to Veterans Affairs medical facilities to national parks. I should note that the ABA also applies to non-government facilities that receive federal funding, such as certain schools, housing and transit systems.

The Access Board plays a leading role in developing and maintaining standards under Section 508 of the Rehab Act. For those who aren’t familiar, can you please provide a high-level overview of Section 508? What does it mandate, and to whom does it apply?

Section 508 relates to technology. Specifically, it applies to federal agencies when they procure, develop, maintain or use information and communication technology. The Access Board is responsible for developing the standards that agencies must follow. Under Section 508, any electronic content hosted on public-facing agency websites or social media, for example, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities, whether members of the public or employees, unless certain exceptions apply. For instance, Section 508 standards help ensure access for website users with low vision or who are blind when using assistive technology, such as a screen reader. Similarly, they require captioning and audio descriptions of videos.

Can you share a little bit about the history of Section 508? How did it come to be included as part of the Rehabilitation Act?

Section 508 was originally added to the Act in 1986, but it was then significantly expanded by the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, which were part of the Workforce Investment Act signed by President Bill Clinton. The amendments strengthened Section 508 by mandating access to information and communication technology procured by the Federal Government, including not only electronic office equipment, but also computers, hardware, software and websites. The law also assigned the Access Board responsibility for developing and updating related accessibility standards. 

In your view, why is information and communication technology accessibility so important, particularly when it comes to the employment of people with disabilities?

Section 508’s accessibility requirements help ensure federal employees with disabilities can access information and data online and execute the responsibilities and duties of their jobs. Section 508 also helps ensure all people can participate in and benefit from information provided by government agencies—which can relate, for instance, to employment, taxes, social security or health care, among many other examples.

Tell us a bit about the enforcement of Section 508. Whose role is that?

Each federal agency is responsible for enforcing Section 508 internally to ensure that both its employees and stakeholders with disabilities have equal access to the information and data it provides. No one agency has jurisdiction over another. Individuals with disabilities can file an administrative complaint against an agency, as well as a civil action. 

Some people think of Section 508 as solely pertaining to federal agencies, but it also impacts the private sector. Can you explain how that is so?

Section 508 is used by many local and state governments and private organizations as the standard by which they make their own websites accessible. The Department of Justice says that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires organizations covered under the Act to ensure equal access to information about their programs, services and activities. This includes information provided through websites. This does not currently contain specific requirements addressing how to make websites accessible, however. Therefore, many private-sector businesses and other entities use Section 508 standards to help them create accessible online content, including websites. Also, under Section 508, information and communication technology products and services provided to federal agencies by their contractors and subcontractors must be accessible. 

Now, we’ve talked a lot about Section 508, but the Access Board also plays a leading role in developing and maintaining standards under a newer part of the Rehab Act, Section 510. What is Section 510?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, included a provision to amend the Rehabilitation Act to address access to medical diagnostic equipment, including examination tables and chairs, weight scales, x-ray machines and other radiological equipment and mammography equipment. This amendment charged the Access Board with developing and periodically reviewing accessibility standards for such equipment in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration. 

The theme of the Rehab Act anniversary is “Increasing Access and Equity—Then, Now and Next.” How do you believe the law has helped to advance equity and inclusion, and how will it do so in the future?

Now more than ever, access to online content is essential to equity and inclusion. Section 508 has played a major role in this regard, and the Access Board is committed to ensuring it continues to do so. Reflecting this, in 2017, we published a refresh of the Section 508 standards, bringing new emphasis to the importance of this issue, both within the U.S. and worldwide. In addition, in 2021, we published the Information and Communication Technology Testing Baseline for Web Accessibility, which sets minimum testing criteria and evaluation guidance for federal agencies to help determine if their web content meets Section 508 standards. We also engage in a lot of ongoing education, for instance, through our Section 508 Best Practices Series. We’re committed to ensuring Section 508 does what it’s intended to—increase access and equity throughout society.

For more information about Section 508, visit the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology’s Section 508 webpage.

Nathan Cunningham is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy.