Section 508 Certification
Throughout my accessibility consulting work, Section 508 certification is one of the first questions I get.
many of my clients asked me at the beginning of a Section 508 remediation, if I will provide them with a Section 508 certificate, which states the compliance of their product. In this article, I would like to answer this question, and dissolve misconceptions about Section 508 certification.
The short answer for the previous question is no. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a Section 508 certification at this moment. There is a set of standards which prescribe how to make information technology accessible when working with the Federal Government. It is arguable how effective this set of standards is, it is definitely not very descriptive. However, without a doubt we can say that it had made a huge difference in people's lives since it came into effect in 2001. Currently the standards are being rewritten, and we expect to have something much more voluminous out around 2010. However, despite the long life of the standards, Section 508 certifications have not evolved. There is no organization which can review any particular product, and globally accept it, or reject it.
Use a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) instead
Understand the agency you are working with
For the lack of certification and due to the brief standards, larger government agencies, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Social Security Administration, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and many more, have provided further guidance to their employees and contractors for developing and procuring information technology. This guidance in general, elaborates on the current Section 508 standards, provides training materials, examples, and most importantly, the agency's interpretation of Section 508.
One of the major differences in the interpretation is that some agencies use the letter of the law, others use the spirit of the law. They are equally great approaches, and there is lot's of validity to them. Think about it the same way as the Republican and the Democratic parties. You might be on one side or the other, but they both want the country to prosper.
The letter of the law approach interprets the Section 508 standards as literally as possible, and does not establish more requirements than it is necessary. In certain cases, it is possible that an application or a web page is completely Section 508 compliant, but not necessarily accessible. It also works the other way around, something might be very accessible, while it does not meet one or two standards. According to the letter of the law approach, we need to build according to the standards, and assistive technologies, such as screen readers and voice recognition systems, as well as mainstream technologies, such as browsers and operating systems should be designed so that they can understand Section 508 compliant information.
The spirit of the law approach says that the letter of the law is a great thing, but what are we going to do in the meantime, while all screen readers, browsers and anything else will catch up with Section 508, which is planned to be altered soon any way. According to this approach, information should be readily available no matter what it takes. Agencies supporting this approach have further requirements aside from the Section 508 standards. One of the major category of those is testing information technology with assistive technologies. For example, if such an agency uses JAWS for Windows as their approved screen reader, when a contractor wants to sell a product to them, it also has to be tested with JAWS and make sure that blind people are able to use the product, while making sure that it meets all the Section 508 requirements.
Therefore, each agency will make a determination whether you meet their accessibility requirements. It is often understood in a way that Section 508 means something else at every agency. It might be that it is interpreted slightly differently, but over-all, you will find the same requirements. What differs more is what the agency wants you to do above and beyond Section 508 compliance. And this cannot be certified globally. It will always be a procurement specialist, or your statement of work which will provide the requirements.
What can you do instead of a Section 508 Certification?
There are many Section 508 training classes. These classes also cannot provide you with a Section 508 certification. What they can provide you with is a certificate of completion, or a certificate of attendance.
So, the question is, how can you make sure that your information technology product is Section 508 compliant.
Follow the Section 508 standards. You can't go wrong, it contains many useful requirements and it will really make your product very accessible.
Understand an agency's requirements. Review their Section 508 web site, understand how they approach Section 508 compliance and accessibility.
Ask your accessibility consulting company to provide you with a certificate that they have tested your product. While it is not a certification, it is certainly an approach that will help you when you sell to the Federal Government.
While there is no such thing today as a Section 508 certification, throughout my practice I have not seen any product to be declined because of Section 508 non-compliance when developers have put a great effort into making it accessible, and Section 508 compliant.