What does Section 508 mean for Instructional Designers?

Section 508
March 7, 2023
6 minutes
Section 508

What is Section 508?

"Section 508" refers to the information technology aspects of the US Rehabilitation Act.  

The Rehabilitation Act was originally passed in 1973 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability for federal programs as well as programs that receive federal aid or employment. This pre-dated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which expanded anti-discrimination protections for the disabled much further.

In 1998, Congress updated the Rehabilitation Act to include Section 508, which introduced requirements for the accessibility of "information and communication technology," sometimes abbreviated as ICT. It sets standards for everything from documents and hardware interfaces to websites and software.

In 2017, Section 508 was updated so that it would apply to electronic documents like PDFs. The update also synchronized Section 508's requirements with that of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Does Section 508 Apply to eLearning Development?

Digital learning development easily falls under the category of information and communication technology, but does that make compliance mandatory?

Technically, like the rest of the US Rehabilitation Act, Section 508 only applies to organizations that receive federal funding. However, even this limited applicability has a ripple effect – even if none of your clients are connected to federal funding, one of their clients might be, and so on.  

As a result, most eLearning development organizations that do business in the US – or hope to in the future – choose to comply with Section 508 requirements to avoid future headaches.

What Does Section 508 Require During Digital Learning Development?

Revised Section 508 standards incorporate WCAG 2.0 Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements by reference, so those are the minimum guidelines you need to follow.

While Section 508 is rarely updated, WCAG standards are revised much more frequently. You don't have to stick to an outdated version to comply with Section 508 – WCAG 2.1 Level AA criteria also work.  

WCAG criteria will impact almost all aspects of an eLearning course, including:

  • Providing a text alternative to all non-text (visual or auditory) content
  • Offering alternatives for time-based media (audio or video)
  • Producing content that is adaptable to format changes without losing information or structure
  • Making it easier for users to distinguish foreground from background in your content
  • Creating content that is easy to read and understand
  • Giving users enough time to read and use your content
  • Avoiding content that is known to cause seizures or physical reactions
  • Supporting users' ability to navigate, find content, and figure out where they currently are
  • Designing all functionality to be available via keyboard
  • Enabling users to operate functionality through non-keyboard inputs
  • Making projects compatible with assistive technologies
  • Designing projects to operate in predictable and easy-to-understand ways
  • Helping users avoid and correct input mistakes

That's a long list, and each item on the list has multiple sets of guidelines to consider. All in all, it means you need to integrate accessibility in every part of an eLearning course from all types of content to controls, inputs, and course structure.

Is Section 508 the Only Accessibility Standard to Consider?

No – in fact, far from it.  

As we mentioned, WCAG compliance basically is Section 508 compliance.  

If you do business with organizations outside the US, you'll probably also need to meet the accessibility guidelines that apply in that jurisdiction, like Canada's Policy on Communication and Federal Identity, United Kingdom Quality Act, Australia Disability Discrimination Act, or the EU's Web Accessibility Directive. Most governing bodies have begun to pull their standards into closer alignment with WCAG, which is good news for developers. However, requirements still differ.

Then there are voluntary industry standards.

In recent years, W3C has introduced a new set of standards that apply to dynamic content and advanced user interface controls called WAI-ARIA (short for Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications). In an eLearning course, WAI-ARIA requirements would apply to interactive elements like accordions, sliders, drag-and-drop activities, and the like. These components will cause problems for anyone using assistive technology unless you develop them with accessibility in mind.

How Do You Make Accessibility a Habit?

Since accessibility is composed of so many parts, that's not a short answer. In the past, we've narrowed it down to 5 ways to optimize accessibility, which boil down to:

  1. Mind your focus items and focus order
  2. Add supportive text for screen readers
  3. Optimize the use of color and contrast
  4. Make your audio and video content fully accessible to everyone
  5. Develop accessible assessments

However, none of that adds up to one simple habit, or even five habits. Each item is complicated. In fact, this extensive resource round-up can't even cover everything.

If we had to name ONE habit to improve your eLearning authoring routine, it would be to use an authoring tool that is designed to optimize accessibility – something that does the heavy lifting for you and gives you relevant information along the way when action is needed.

We designed dominKnow | ONE for exactly that. One of our goals is to make it as easy as possible to optimize the accessibility of your eLearning courses and projects.

How Does dominKnow | ONE Make Section 508 / WCAG Compliance Simple?

dominKnow | ONE meets guidelines for creating content that is compliant with not just Section 508 but WCAG 2.1 Level AA and WAI-ARIA standards.

First, many accessibility considerations that can be taken care of without your attention are. For example, most pre-built assessment and practice elements are designed to be accessible.  

You can pick a WCAG-compliant theme to ensure your navigation controls are compliant and then use the theme designer to make aspects like font size, contrast, and color compliant. Once done your whole team can reuse this theme.

Some accessibility measures require an author's touch, but we help you make the best decisions with our inline accessibility settings tab. Here, you'll have access to accessibility settings like alt text, plus best practices and tips for making your content as accessible as possible. This advice is context-dependent, which means you'll only see the guidelines for the applicable type of content (like images, audio clips, or video).

When we updated our interface in 2021, we upped our accessibility support game even further. Now, our audio, video and image element controls help audit your accessibility settings as you go – if something is missing, you'll see a dark exclamation mark on the Menu icon. Additionally, the Help icon can suggest more how-to's and best practices via relevant Community articles.  

Accessibility is even integrated into our content reuse and review workflows.  

Why waste time writing accessibility text when you've already described and tagged that content for later searches? Image descriptions are automatically copied into the alt text field, where you can revise them if necessary. Reusing media across multiple projects? Previous accessibility settings will carry over as well, like screen reader text and closed caption files.  

Our native review tools have always been popular for their convenience, but a recent update made it easier for reviewers to see and comment on accessibility issues. In the simplified reviewer interface, you can now see which items are set to be focusable, view a page's tab order, read accessibility text fields, and comment on accessibility settings. Such comments will get flagged automatically as accessibility issues for tracking purposes.

We're really just the highlights in today's article – dominKnow | ONE has even more accessibility tricks up its sleeve. To learn more about how our eLearning authoring tool can make accessible authoring easier for you, sign up for our free 14-day trial or schedule an appointment with one of our experts.

As often as we've talked about accessibility in eLearning in the past, we've never done a deep-dive on the most fundamental accessibility hurdle in the US: Section 508. Let's dig in.

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