Section 508 and ADA, part the first

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Not only is Section 508 different from the Americans with Disabilities Act, but Section 508 doesn’t necessarily mean the website of a library or local government office will be accessible.

So recently I came across an error: that people, if they do not have disabilities themselves or do not work within it, often think “Section 508”, which is a federal US law governing equitable access to information for Federal agencies, is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To some degree, this makes a sort of sense to group these laws together. Both relate to people with disabilities.

However, Section 508 is part of a different law – in particular, the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amendments in 1978 and later), which is part of the US Code. This seems like just a trivial point, unless you realize some of the different spheres in the two laws. The Rehabilitation Act concerned itself with Federal agencies and contractors it worked with: it was the same law (in a different section) that discussed vocational rehabilitation funding for people with disabilities and employment anti-discrimination within Federal agencies and contracting agencies. (Note the scope in this law though: many businesses in the US still do pay disabled workers much less than the minimum wage as per Vox Media and other reporting outlets, if people with disabilities are hired at all: the exceptions being Alaska, New Hampshire, and Maryland.)

Part of the Rehabilitation Act also discusses accommodations meant for the educational sphere as well as employment and other areas, in Section 504. Section 504, which has different implementations per agency and with the way Section 504 is explicitly worded, covers any and all programs receiving Federal aid. As such, it was a predecessor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, being one of the first laws dealing with noting “reasonable accommodations” must be made. More on this later, but Section 504 – especially with regard to the educational sphere – has been facing difficulties by the very agency overseeing public education lately.

In this context, Section 508 is meant for people with disabilities having “equitable access” to information. Today it extends to websites and applications of Federal agencies, but this was also the reason why agencies had a TTY setup so people who were Deaf, or otherwise needed the TTY number, could still access information in the State Department or do their federal taxes, and so on. But the scope is for Federal agencies only, and even though states can and usually align their own information laws to Section 508 (or to the industry guidelines of WCAG), this means that in a person’s everyday life, many offices can still remain inaccessible. Finding out the hours of the local motor vehicle department for a state ID, for example, may be difficult short of trying to get transit to go to the office – because the website or app is not compatible with a screen reader. Checking out an audiobook or book on CD from the local library? Also may be difficult – the library may or may not be aligned to Section 508, or the library administration or city government may view accessibility as being expensive/taking too much funds when they are already on a tight budget, pleading it would be an undue hardship.

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