Section 508 for Smartphone “Apps”?

Section 508 for Smartphone “Apps”?

First, some background. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.

Disabilities might include, for example, color blindness, hearing loss, blindness, and other disabilities. Additional information can be found at http://www.section508.gov/

What is the consequence if IT products are not compliant with Section 508? Section 508 uses the Federal procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the Federal Government is accessible. Failure of an agency to purchase electronic and information technology that complies with the standards promulgated at 36 CFR part 1194, may result in an individual with a disability filing a complaint alleging that a Federal agency has not complied with the standards. Individuals may also file a civil action against an agency. The enforcement provision of section 508 took effect June 21, 2001.

GSA has a handy guide for both vendors and buyers of IT products available at https://app.buyaccessible.gov/baw/KwikLinksMain.jsp

This GSA site has a set of documentation for Smartphones that includes market research guidelines for buyers, relevant documentation for Smartphones, and a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) for Smartphone vendors. In general, vendors make their VPATs available on their websites. Try Googling Microsoft and VPAT, for example.

According to the documentation identified above, Smartphones compliant with Section 508 must comply with Section 1194.22 (Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications).

It is not unusual to see terms and conditions in Federal purchase orders that require compliance with Section 508 for desktop computer products. “Apps” for mobile devices are so new, however, that it is too early to tell whether or not Section 508 requirements will be required or waived in some fashion for “Apps”.

In my review of currently available “Apps” developed for government customers by vendors specializing in this market niche I found that most would not comply with even minimum Section 508 standards: accessibility for persons with disabilities is not a design consideration in this market as yet. In a poll of vendors of government “Apps” at a recent tradeshow I did not meet one who was even aware of the Section 508 requirements.

Clearly the buyer is at risk absent some amendment to the law that would exempt “Apps”.

But is that necessary? Will vendors develop versions of their “Apps” that address the needs of this niche market? Are there vendors who can develop accessibility “Apps” for other vendors’ non-compliant “Apps”? Will persons with disabilities give the government a pass and not sue Agencies that move to “Apps” for more and more mobile device functions in the field?

Only time will tell. What do you think?

Van Ristau is DLT Solutions’ Chief Technology Officer. He stays current on all aspects of public sector IT, and blogs on the industry IT perspective and cybersecurity. Van is very active on Twitter, tweeting daily news articles using @VanRistau. He also contributes on Google+ and LinkedIn.