A primer on 508

An individual using a braille terminal
karola riegler photography

Usually when I tell people who don’t directly work in government agencies about my services, the subject of Section 508 comes up. This is typically followed by a long, blank stare, coupled with a dumbfounded pause while they try to figure out what the hell I’m talking about. “I’m not familiar with that,” is a rather common response. So I tell them I design complex documents that are accessible to people who use screen readers. The problem with my answer is that it doesn’t really clarify what is Section 508.

What is Section 508?

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that Congress signed into law in 1998 which was designed to eliminate barriers to people with disabilities who are accessing information on government web sites. Basically, it is a law that requires government agencies to provide information to anyone (whether a private citizen or Federal employee) who view their electronic content. This electronic content includes the following:

  • Software Applications and Operating Systems
  • Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications
  • Telecommunications Products
  • Video and Multimedia Products
  • Self Contained, Closed Products
  • Desktop and Portable Computers


As graphic designers who typically work with Government agencies, the only things we probably don’t provide services for would be anything related to a physical item, such as a computer or telephone. However, the broad language means quite a few things. If a Web Developer codes a plug-in to automate tasks for an agency, for example, that code must be accessible to individuals who have a disability. A general rule is that if it is web-related, it is most likely covered by Section 508.

All Electronic Information Must be 508 Compliant

The most obvious web-based communication device would be a web site. Therefore, the majority of Government agencies trying to become Section 508 compliant focus their attention on their web sites. However,  a web site isn’t the only thing they are required to make accessible. Any document a Government agency distributes must be accessible to everyone, and the most common example would be the Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format, AKA the PDF.

PDFs have an advantage over other documents in terms of providing accessible content. PDFs retain the formatting of the creation software to ensure that it looks the same no matter who looks at it. Further, the PDF allows for significant improvement in making documents accessible.

Who has to comply to this law?

All Federal agencies must comply to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, as the Department of Justice Civil Rights states here:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. – U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

Additionally, this law covers vendors who work with the Federal Government as well. Subcontractors are required by law to provide accessible services to government agencies. However, a vendor cannot be sued under Section 508 compliance regulations, so the burden falls entirely on the funding agency. What does this mean to Vendors then? Well, vendors can protest the validity of another vendor’s bid to perform the same job. This has a number of ramifications. An obvious one  is that if a protest is found to be valid;  and the agency has to spend more money to fix the problem, then the future working relationship with a vendor is seriously questionable.

Depending on the reasons for receiving Federal funding, other organizations such as schools, online learning centers, and libraries also may be required to comply with Section 508. A good way to look at it might be that if the Rehabilitation Act applies to a particular organization, then that organization is probably bound by the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act.  Because Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act, it can be assumed that the rules of Section 508 should be followed.

Private companies are not required by law to be 508 compliant. On the other hand, they can get into a number of legal issues for not providing equal access to their customers.

What makes a PDF 508 Compliant?

In order to create a Section 508 document, the PDF must contain tags, have a language associated to the document, and have a ‘logical reading order’. Additionally, subsection 1194.22 of Section 508 looks at a number checkpoints to determine if a PDF is compliant:

(a) All figures and images (the difference between the two is generally the difference between a graphic and a photo, even though they are all considered ‘figures’) must have alternate text explaining what they are;

(c) Information can’t rely solely on color alone. For example, you can’t require users to read the content in the shaded box without somehow mentioning the color of the shaded box;

(g) Row and table headers need to be identifiable when using a table;

(h) Markup is required to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more levels of row or column headers;

(n) Forms that are intended to be completed electronically are required to “allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.”

However, many other agencies require additional requirements. For example, the Veterans Affairs office has a rather comprehensive checklist for making a 508 compliant document (some of which are asinine and I’m not really sure they help make a document be any more or less accessible).

Does making a PDF 508 Compliant mean it is accessible?

In a word: No. The Section 508 guidelines are meant to help agencies meet the minimum requirements to be accessible to screen readers. Just having a tagged PDF with alternate text for images and links does not make something immediately accessible. Further action is required to accurately create a document that will receive the full benefit of using a screen reader.

What’s the risk of not being 508 compliant?

According to the governing body of Section 508, the Access Board, There is an administrative complaint process put in place that allows any individual with a disability to file a complaint alleging that a Federal department or agency has not complied with the accessible technology standards. The complaint process is the same as that used for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, for complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in Federally-conducted programs or activities. Individuals can also file civil action against an agency.

A final thought

Section 508 is meant to make content accessible to everyone. It might seem like a major headache to people who are creating documents, but the number of individuals with disabilities is in the millions in the U.S. alone; and, if the idea is to get information out there to everyone, this is a way to ensure that it happens. Furthermore, because the government is being asked to do more and more with less money, this provides an opportunity to get important information out there.