February 14, 2021

Section 508 Accommodations: Missing Pieces in the DEI Puzzle

Prior to the pandemic, companies had been making efforts to broaden the scope of their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, adding neurodiversity and gender identity into the mix. But as COVID-19 swept through the world, it left DEI programs in its dust. Progress didn’t just falter, it stumbled into a terrible backslide that will take time and focus to remedy. Remote work contributed to some of the challenges. On the other hand, telework is a reasonable accommodation—one that makes it easier for employers to bring aboard differently abled talent. And that sounds great. But what about the visually and hearing impaired? These individuals aren’t new to the diversity scene. Are they being properly included, especially since technology has assumed a more prominent role in our lives? The lack of attention that big tech companies have paid to Section 508 accommodations brings up a lot of lingering issues.

Section 508 Compliance

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that information communication technology (ICT) developed, procured, or maintained by any federal agency be accessible to persons with disabilities. Over the years, that definition has grown to include private sector technology companies. Let’s say your organization is bidding on a contract in which you plan to license a web-based system to a government entity. Your site must satisfy Section 508 compliance standards. There’s also aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to consider. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) stated that ADA requires any person, business, or organization covered under the Act to communicate effectively about their programs, services, and activities. This includes information provided through a website. The bottom line, or at least best practice, is this: regardless of whether federal regulations apply to your website, designing a compliant system will help your organization effectively meet the needs of all your customers. 

Think of it along the same lines as Sarbanes Oxley (SOX)—the law applies to publicly traded companies, but its emphasis on integrity, transparency, and honesty is often adopted by other businesses as a show of good faith and ethics. Yet, Section 508 reaches beyond positive branding images and slick PR. It’s a powerful force for inclusion that most people, and too many enterprises, have ignored or forgotten.

As cited by the Department of Health and Human Services, compliance is simply the right thing to do given the prevalence of differently abled users in the United States alone.

  • 6.4 million people a visual disability.
  • 10.5 million people have a hearing disability.
  • 20.9 million people have an ambulatory disability or limited mobility.
  • 14.8 million people have a cognitive disability.

On average, 13.2 million people in the United States have at least one disability that Section 508 covers and attempts to assist with. One would imagine that large technology companies, particularly those whose products are among the most widely used, would already have written Section 508 compliance into their platforms. Based on an article by April Glaser in Slate about the challenges of blind Facebook users, the social network is far from addressing the needs of all its users.

Tech Companies Blind to the Needs of Differently Abled Users?

“The social network wants to be accessible,” Glaser wrote of the social network’s claims to bolster inclusion, specifically for the visually impaired. “Blind users and former Facebook workers say it isn’t doing enough.” Her expose opens with an uncomfortable but all too prevalent account.

Tasha Chemel agreed to participate in a Facebook study. A professional academic coach at a college, Chemel had been blogging about Facebook’s problems with accessibility for blind people like her and complained directly to the company. She was used to not hearing back. But this time a Facebook envoy had humbly reached out, admitting “that Facebook is not as accessible as it should be, and the frustration with accessibility gaps you and others share with us is understandable.” He was trying to make things better. Facebook offered Chemel a $75 gift card for her time. But the researcher soon realized the website for choosing a gift card wasn’t fully compatible with the screen readers blind people use to browse the web and asked if Chemel would be OK with an Amazon gift card. The roadblock felt all too familiar. “I’m really not OK with having fewer choices than the non-screen-reader users who complete this survey, and you shouldn’t be OK with it, either,” Chemel responded, and when she didn’t hear back about a fix, she withdrew from the study.

The problems brought to Facebook’s attention, blind users told Glaser, often remain unresolved or only cursorily redressed. Here’s another example to illustrate the problems:

For about two weeks in 2018, Facebook Messenger stopped allowing VoiceOver to read back to blind users what they had typed. There was a bug in which new notifications would interrupt VoiceOver as it read news feed posts, forcing the app to restart the passage. Over the past year, blind users who manage pages on Facebook have had trouble banning people and inviting people to like their pages. Since its debut in 2016, Facebook’s Marketplace platform for selling secondhand goods has had problems with unlabeled buttons and reading back listings. Instagram Stories are completely inaccessible to blind users, despite having been on the app for three years and being one of Instagram’s most popular features.

Glaser also interviewed Sina Bahram, president of Prime Access Consulting, a firm specializing in inclusive design. Bahram is blind. Although Facebook has made fewer strides toward accessibility than its Big Four peers, the remaining three continue to lag in the area, too. Google, Microsoft, and Apple have all become “less accessible over the years” in Bahram’s professional experience. He admitted that these companies have made “vast leaps forward” in working with diversity advocates and pushing past well-reported problems, but this progress generally incorporates the usual suspects in the inclusion dilemma: race and gender. Even there, Facebook falls well short of diverse hiring practices. Since its DEI data was first published in 2014, Google has made only small, incremental improvements; it still has miles to go before it can tout itself as a model of DEI in tech. Yet accessibility, strange as it may seem, doesn’t even appear to be a blip on anybody’s radar.

“I believe that in every tech company of scale there are going to be numerous pockets where accessibility isn’t happening or is under-resourced or inconsistent,” Bahram concluded.

Digital Accommodations 

With so much of our work performed in the cloud or over the Internet, websites have become the centralized conduits through which the bulk of our business transactions take place. As such, accommodations need to be made to ensure that people with hearing, visual, or physical limitations can access and utilize sites—much in the same way that material accommodations are needed in brick-and-mortar office spaces. As we wrote in July 2019, accommodations are generally minor investments that yield longer-term dividends. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires most public and private employers to provide reasonable accommodations that enable qualified people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs. However, the act explicitly stipulates that “reasonable” means the accommodations don’t expose employers to “undue financial hardship.” Virginia Commonwealth University has an excellent fact sheet that covers all the basics of the ADA

So what are reasonable accommodations, according to the ADA? They include items such as the following.

  • Restructuring of existing facilities
  • Restructuring of the job
  • Modification to work schedules
  • Modification of equipment
  • Installation of new equipment
  • Provision of qualified readers and interpreters
  • Modification of application and examination procedures and training materials
  • Flexible personal leave policies

Although some of the criteria may come across as financially daunting, the real-world costs are often minimal.

  • 50% of accommodations cost less than $500
  • 19% cost nothing at all
  • More than 80% cost less than $1,000

As reliance increases on electronic media to perform our jobs, Section 508 compliance seems poised to join the list as a reasonable accommodation. Kris Rivenburgh, an ADA website compliance consultant, authored an excellent article on Medium that breaks down the typical processes and costs for developing a website accessible to the differently abled

“For smaller sites, remediation can be fairly affordable. Start at $4,500 if you have work done by an agency,” Rivenburgh wrote. “For sites with 25–50 pages, it probably won’t cost that much. Think $25,000-$75,000 on the higher end.”

If you’re building a new site or launching one from scratch, Section 508 standards can be implemented as part of the design. If not, remediation is usually required. “The more dynamic your website is and the more intricate your design is, the more complex your accessibility update is going to be and the more you’re going to pay,” Rivenburgh said.

The new reality, however, is that at some point soon, this level of compliance will become an ADA mandate. And although the price tag seems higher than the average costs of physical accommodations, that price is universal—it’s paid once for a website that any number of people can access, while typical accommodation costs run per worker. So in the long run, the website remediation or redevelopment is an investment with a potentially better return.

New Chapter in an Old Tale

Some stories, they say, are timeless. Others never cease to haunt us. Why do some fables or anecdotes endure where others fade away? Many times, it’s because the tale is cautionary. And why do cautionary tales persist, with many retaining their relevance through the ages? In large part, because the issue at the core of the narrative remains unresolved. For anyone involved in labor, employment, or the workforce, that tale would seem to be about diversity. The subject has preoccupied the staffing world practically since its inception. But despite moments of positive progress, we still face plenty of reversals or unacknowledged challenges. 

As technology and automation fuel more of the staffing and employment industry, we would be wise to make sure that every candidate and client user can seamlessly operate the systems that now support so many aspects of job postings, vendor management, applicant tracking, and payrolling. It’s also the right thing to do, particularly for an industry committed to championing diversity and inclusion for every individual. 

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

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