The Importance of Complying With Section 508 for U.S. Local Government Boards

Lena Eisenstein

Municipal boards should be aware of all state, province, federal and local laws that affect them, either directly or indirectly. Section 508 of the U.S. federal law pertains to accessibility for people with disabilities. U.S. Municipal board directors should be well-informed about Section 508 of the law and ensure that the municipality's website meets the standards of the law.

The federal government requires municipal governments to guarantee equal opportunity for people with disabilities. The intention of Section 508 is to encourage the development of products and web-based services that meet certain accessibility standards.

What Is Section 508?

Section 508 is an amendment to the U.S. Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It's a federal law that doesn't apply to the private sector and doesn't impose any requirements on recipients of federal funding. Section 508 carries compliance reporting requirements and is binding and enforceable. The law outlines a complaint procedure for people who want to make a report. Boards should also be aware that their citizens may file a complaint against Section 504 at the same time they file a complaint against Section 508. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires municipalities to provide a reasonable modification of policies and to provide effective communication for people with disabilities.

Section 508 mandates that all electronic and information technology that's been developed, procured, maintained or used by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities. The definition of accessible means that the technology can be used just as effectively by people with disabilities as by those without disabilities.

As with most government laws, the federal government devised a definition for electronic and information technology so there can be no misinterpretation of the terms. The definition of electronic and information technology in Section 508 is consistent with the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. It means 'any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information. It includes computer hardware, software, networks, and peripherals as well as many electronic and communications devices commonly used in offices.'

Municipalities should be aware that physical structures, electronic information, and any other official activities or programs at the local government level must be accessible to all citizens. Cities and towns may also have their own accessibility and disability policies, and they must coincide with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

U.S. Local Governments Should Adhere to Section 508

U.S. Municipal governments and all governments should adhere to Section 508 because every level and form of government provides services to all people, including people with disabilities. Across the globe, jurisdictions follow WCAG in their laws and regulations so that all people can access important websites, especially people with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mentions WCAG Level AA as the preferred technical requirements that governments and corporations should follow.

Since local citizens rely on their municipality's website to get information from the government, it's important that they provide equal access to people with disabilities. Being able to get information by computer may make it possible for a disabled person to access transportation, pay their utilities, register for a program, apply for a job or watch a municipal council meeting online.

Municipalities that adhere to Section 508 regulations will find that it saves them money on their budgets. A full-featured, accessible website eliminates expensive marketing campaigns like postal mail because citizens can access the same information more easily online. Online accessibility cuts down on paper and the labor to process it, makes it faster to collect fees and payments, and brings citizens closer to their government workers and elected officials. Municipalities that use transcribed audio features or closed-captioning with video make it easy for people to review the happenings at council meetings with or without sound. This can be a major asset for seniors, shut-ins, people with disabilities, people who lack confidence in technology and people who rely on mobile devices.

WCAG has two levels ' Level A and Level AA. Level A is a basic level of accessibility that may leave major barriers in place for people with disabilities. Municipal governments should follow Level AA to make sure that no one with disabilities gets left out. Level AA requires closed-captioning to be provided along with all audio content for broadcasts, animations and videoconferences, so that all non-hearing people can understand the content. Level AA also lists requirements for color contrast. To be in compliance with Section 508, organizations must have a minimum contrast between the foreground and background colors so that people with vision impairments can see the text more easily.

While Section 508 is a U.S. federal law, state and local governments also comply with the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides protection for people with disabilities. It applies to all levels of government and other organizations that serve the public. What this means for municipalities is that if your municipality offers online services, information, and audio or video of council meetings, you must allow people with disabilities to access the same online services and information on the same level as nondisabled people.

How a Transparency Portal Helps U.S. Municipalities Comply With Section 508

Municipalities can take a step toward complying with Section 508 and serving their citizens living with disabilities by implementing a Transparency Portal with Video Manager HD by iCompass, a Diligent brand. This program offers closed-captioning for the hearing impaired and HD for people with visual disabilities.

Clerks have the ability to edit closed-captioned text so that citizens receive an accurate account. They can even add useful subtitles for further clarification. Clerks can also add a timestamp to the online meeting minutes document and the online agenda. Disabled and nondisabled citizens can simply click on the timestamp in the agenda or the minutes, and it will take them to a specific section of the video. The timestamp and closed-captioning will also appear on the video as it displays on the viewer's YouTube channel. Citizen viewers can also see time-stamped items in the description window in the YouTube video window.

Disabled citizens in every community have something to offer others. Chances of getting them engaged are better when they're able to stay up-to-date on their municipality's activities and information.

Related Insights
Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.