Increasing Accessibility with the Section 508 Refresh

My university’s annual Summer Institute on teaching and learning focused on accessibility this year. Specifically, we learned about the Section 508 refresh. If you don’t know what that phrase means, you’re in good company. I didn’t know either.

Section 508

“Section 508” refers to part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It requires the US government to make information and services accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Act has been amended an updated at various points, and this “refresh” is the latest update. Section 508 applies to just the federal government, but the Department of Education requires states receiving Assistive Technology Act grants to comply with Section 508, meaning that public institutions are generally expected to comply. A summary of the changes is available in a whitepaper from Level Access.

Private universities like mine may not be legally required to comply with Section 508, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Instead, we had training at our Summer Institute with the aim of becoming voluntarily compliant by the January 2018 deadline.

The Refresh

What is new about the refresh? All new and revised content and materials must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. (Existing materials that met the previous standards are grandfathered in and don’t need to meet the new standards until they are edited.) The new guidelines apply to all public-facing materials and some non-public-facing materials, including (emphasis added) “questionnaires or surveys, templates or forms, educational or training materials, and web-based intranets.

Practical impact

What does this refresh mean for instructors like me? Every digital item I use in my class or post to my LMS ought to be accessible to my students. Text should be resizable and readable using screen reader software. Video should have (accurate!) closed captions. Audio files should be accompanied by transcripts. Images should have alt text descriptions. Online homework tools should also be navigable without a mouse.

One helpful thing I learned at the Summer Institute is that the principles of accessible design are (for the most part) the principles of good design. Choosing a consistent layout, using styles to indicate the structure of a document (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), using tab stops (instructions for Word, Pages) instead of manually tabbing and aligning, and labeling tables with clear headers, for example, are all good choices for accessible design. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to learn a whole new set of skills to be ready for this change.

Accessible science

Since the Summer Institute, I’ve been thinking about accessibility in the sciences. We’re in the planning stages for a new science building on campus, and accessibility of teaching and lab spaces is a frequent discussion point. The building is years away from completion, though, so it’s worth thinking about what we can do now to improve the accessibility of our classes. More on that in a future post.