Changing Section 508 Laws and the Implications to Your E-Learning

If you’re an e-learning developer or development team member, you’re likely familiar with at least the terms “Section 508” or “accessibility” and whether or not you need to worry about them.

Those creating e-learning for a U.S. government entity, who provides services to, or are funded by the U.S. government, are likely quite familiar with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This U.S. law provides a set of technical standards for ensuring that web-based applications and information (such as e-learning) are accessible to people with disabilities.

Did you know? Section 508 and the standards outlined within it, are about to change.


Since 2010, the U.S. Access Board has been lobbying for and proposing revisions to the standards outlined in Section 508, among other standards around information and communication technology. In February of 2015, the Board published its proposed new rule and opened it to public comment. The Board’s assigned committee is now in the process of reviewing received comments and are making revisions needed to finalize the rule. It is expected that this new rule will be published in the Federal Register sometime this month. However, when the rule officially goes into effect is currently unknown. It could be up to six months after publication, which would be sometime around or after April, 2017.

What’s Being Proposed

The new rule will have a broader reach and will include a set of stricter technical requirements. Here are the two major changes of the proposed rule that will clearly impact e-learning content.

  • The technical standards will be updated to reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, level AA. The guidelines will be applicable not only to web-based content, but also to stand-alone electronic documents and software such as MS Office documents, PDFs, video, and project management tools.
  • The rule will now directly specify that all types of public-facing content that communicates official federal government agency business will need to be accessible. It applies to eight categories of non-public-facing content too, though I was unable to find what these eight categories are exactly.

To read the full history of where we are with this rule refresh, along with the full set of the proposed rules, visit the Access Board’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines.

Why It’s Changing

The rules outlined in Section 508 went into effect in 2000. If you’ve been alive for the last fifteen or more years, you’ve likely noticed that things have changed a little since then. The rules in Section 508 were organized by technology product (think telecommunications products and desktop and portable computers) and simply do not cover the wide range of devices we use today. Moving forward, the rules will be based on required functionality (think text alternatives, keyboard equivalents, and synchronized captioning), which can be more broadly applied to the different devices of today and the future.

Further, since 2000, additional standards have emerged from international communities such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Among these standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While meeting these guidelines is not currently required of U.S. federal government agencies, other countries’ governments such as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and New Zealand have adopted these standards, and even others such as France, Germany, and the U.K. have a set of standards that closely resembles WCAG 2.0, level AA.

What it Means for E-Learning Development

Because of the broader reach of the refreshed rule, I’d expect that there will be a larger need to create accessible e-learning content, both within government organizations and in the private sector. If your e-learning has a public audience that largely consists of government employees past or present, it’ll be in your best interest to ensure your content meets accessibility standards.

Further, WCAG 2.0, level AA is a stricter set of standards than what is currently outlined in Section 508. The guidelines include descriptions of success criteria, and your e-learning courses will have to demonstrate that success criteria in order to meet each guideline. For a comparison of Section 508 and WCAG 2.0, level AA, and to familiarize yourself with the upcoming changes, take a look at the Access Board’s Comparison Table of WCAG 2.0 to Existing 508 Standards.

Get Started Now

The rule proposing these new standards will go into effect any day now. Make sure you’re prepared. If you have any questions about whether you will need to comply, find out now. Spend some time understanding the WCAG 2.0, level AA guidelines and success criteria. If you have existing courses you will need to make accessible, keep in mind that it is often much easier to redevelop your courses, than to try to retrofit them to meet these guidelines. Three of the major e-learning authoring tools, Storyline, Lectora, and Captivate all support creating accessible content to varying degrees. Take a look at my ATD blog Accessibility for E-Learning: Section 508 & WCAG to see how the tools rank and brush up on your knowledge of Section 508 and the WCAG.

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