Section 504 and 508: Closed Captioning

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law, applicable to both federal and federally funded programs, that is designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination and provide funding for disability programs and services. While the law originally emphasized equal opportunities for employment and federally subsidized programming, the act has been expanded both through amendments and the judiciary system to be far more encompassing than originally written. For the purposes of closed captioning and web accessibility, the two sections most often referred to are Section 504 and Section 508.

Sections 504 and 508 – An Overview

Section 504 was added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1977, and was the first law to specifically protect civil rights for people with disabilities. This was in many ways a precursor to the more well-known Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, which expanded the reach of these rights to organizations outside of the federal government. It defines individuals with disabilities as “any person who (A) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, (B) has a record of such an impairment, or (C) is regarded as having such an impairment”

Section 504 states “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any executive agency or by the United States Postal Service." Section 504, for the purposes of employment, defines qualified individuals with disabilities as “persons who, with reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the job for which they’ve applied or have been hired to perform.”

Section 504 applies to federal programs and agencies, and any program that receives federal funding, such as universities, airports, subsidized housing, or ‘local educational agencies,’ usually K-12 school systems. While there are several laws protecting students with disabilities, Section 504 is important to students as it covers extracurricular activities as well as covering a broader spectrum of students than other laws.  

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act passed in 1998 to provide for accessibility in electronic and information technology due to growth in these fields. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. Web content and other electronic content must adhere to standards established and maintained by the government. Standards are currently maintained for software applications and operating systems, web-based intranet and internet sites, computers, and telecommunications or videos and multimedia products, among others.

The only exception in the law is made if the implementation of the standards would impose an undue hardship on the program or agency. However, the program or agency would still be required to provide an alternative way of providing this access or information. For example, if closed captioning was demonstrated to be an undue hardship, then the law would require to provide a sign language interpreter or transcription. However, as demand for accessibility services like closed captioning has increased, it’s become less expensive to provide such services, and therefore made it easier to accommodate people with disabilities.

In addition to agencies and organizations expressly mentioned in the law, any state that receives federal funds from the Assistive Technology Act must comply with Section 508, and many states have laws that reference or mirror the requirements of Section 508.

WCAG 2.0 and Section 508

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and have been widely adopted internationally as the benchmark for web accessibility. While it has no legal weight in the U.S., it did heavily influence the guidelines that were adopted for Section 508.

The standards are currently undergoing an update; this should go into effect sometime this year. This update will align the government’s web accessibility standards to directly reference the WCAG 2.0 criteria for web content, applications, software, and media.  This update is the first since the standards were introduced in 1998 and is badly needed, as they did not account for many modern web page features and functions.  In addition, aligning the standards with WCAG 2.0 will simplify accessibility for organizations and their web developers.

The basic web accessibility standards of Section 508:

(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided

(b) Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.

(c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.

(d) Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

(e) Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.

(f) Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.

(g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.

(h) Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.

(i) Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.

(j) Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.

(k) A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way.  The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.

(l) When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.

(m) When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with §1194.21(a) through (l).

(n) When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.

(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.

(p) When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

(l) When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.

(m) When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with §1194.21(a) through (l).

(n) When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.

(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.

(p) When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

Closed Captioning and the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 mandates that all televisions and computers must be equipped to properly decode and display closed captions. It also mandates that any video, including online video, which contains audio essential to the presentation or information contained in the video must include either open or closed captions. This includes online lectures and presentations, as many colleges and universities have begun extensively using online courses.

Section 508 also mandates and these captions must meet federal guidelines for quality. All audio must be accurately captioned and time-synched to the video.

Legal Concerns Regarding Web Accessibility and Closed Captioning

The ADA, as previously mentioned, did not replace the Rehabilitation Act or override any of its provisions; its effect was primarily to expand protections to cover non-federal public and many private organizations. This comes into play when one considers that the ADA has not had an update to its provisions for new technologies such as the update Section 508 provided for the Rehabilitation Act. Both recent and still ongoing court decisions have held online businesses to accessibility standards similar to those in Section 508, and while precedent is still being set by the courts, we believe it to be prudent to abide by Section 508 and ADA requirements. Feel free to read our overview of the ADA and the legal challenges businesses face for online accessibility {link to ADA article here}.

The Rehabilitation Act, along with the ADA and other accessibility laws, creates a robust set of protections for persons with disabilities. Ensuring that your website, including online video, meets web accessibility and captioning requirements is important not only to avoid potential litigation, but to do the right thing for those who need access to your web site.




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