Achieving Accessibility: Demystifying Section 508 Compliance


This article was written using the information presented by Ron Glahn and Carrie Stinson, both of Porterville College, at the Fall 2002 Plenary Session.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504, Section 508: These are three pieces of federal legislation that address the needs of access for the disabled. While most community college faculty and staff are familiar with at least ADA and possibly Section 504, recent state legislation has made a clear understanding of Section 508 necessary for all. In this short article, I will give a brief overview of legislation concerning access for the disabled and the requirements this legislation imposes on the California Community College System.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. As a result of ADA, all state and local governments are required to offer reasonable services or tools to ensure that people are not discriminated against on the basis of disability. On your local campus, this might take the form of sign language interpreters for deaf students and Braille on hallway signs and in elevators.

Section 504, an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for all state and local governments that receive Federal financial assistance. In March 1996, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reviewed the efforts of the California Community Colleges to accommodate students with disabilities and found the system out of compliance, particularly in serving the needs of visually impaired students with regard to print and computer-based materials. The OCR also pointed out that a public entity violates its obligations under ADA when it only responds on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation. Rather, there is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services.

Two recommendations made by the OCR were the need for development of systemwide access guidelines for distance learning and campus Web pages. Stemming from the OCR finding, guidelines were developed for distance learning (they were in the process of being revised in Fall 2002), and funding was given to all districts to ensure that instructional materials were available in alternate media formats. Many colleges used this funding to hire an alternative media specialist, who works with faculty on the creation of alternate media formats and/or assesses the accessibility of college technological resources, particularly college websites and online course materials, for persons with disabilities.

Section 508 is a 1998 amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act and requires that electronic and information technology that is developed or purchased by the Federal Government is accessible by persons with disabilities. While state and local governments were unsure for several years whether or not Section 508 applied to them, the passage of California Senate Bill (SB) 105 in September 2002 clarified that Section 508 would apply to all state agencies as of January 1, 2003. In particular, Section 2, item 2 of SB105 states:

(2) In order to improve accessibility of existing technology, and therefore increase the successful employment of individuals with disabilities, particularly blind and visually impaired and deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, state governmental entities, in developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic or information technology, either indirectly or through the use of state funds by other entities, shall comply with the accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. Sec. 794d), and regulations implementing that act as set forth in Part 1194 of Title 36 of the Federal Code of Regulations.


Given the passage of SB105, what must California community colleges do to ensure access for disabled students? Here are ten points that apply in general to all educational resources:

  1. Built-in accommodations: All educational resources must be designed to provide "builtin" accommodation where possible (i.e. closed captioning, descriptive narration) and/or interface design/content layout that is accessible to "industry standard" assistive computer technology in common use by persons with disabilities.
  2. Formats: Information should be provided in the alternative format preferred by the student (i.e. sign language interpreter, closed captioning, descriptive narration, Braille, audio tape, large print, electronic text).
  3. Assistants: Assigning assistants (i.e. sign language interpreters, readers) to work with an individual student to provide access to distance education resources should only be considered as a last resort.
  4. All Media: Access includes the audio, video and text components of courses or communication delivered via satellite, Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS), cable, compressed video, Local Area Network/Wide Area Network (LAN/WAN networks), Internet, telephone or any other form of electronic transmission.
  5. Updating Existing Materials: The curriculum for a course and its associated materials and resources will be reviewed and revised as necessary when the course undergoes curriculum review pursuant to Title 5, 55002 and 55378, every six years as part of the accreditation process.
  6. Student Experience: The level of communication and course taking experience must be the same for students with or without disabilities.
  7. Purchases: Any educational resources or materials purchased or leased from a third-party provider or created or substantially modified "in-house" must be accessible to students with disabilities.
  8. Undue Burden Due to Cost: The argument that such accommodations cannot be made due to an undue cost burden will not generally be accepted if consideration of the issue of accessibility at the time of initial selection could have significantly reduced such costs.
  9. No Excuses: In all cases, even where the college can demonstrate that a requested accommodation would involve a fundamental alteration in the nature of the instructional activity or would impose an undue financial and administrative burden, it must nevertheless provide an alternative accommodation that is equally effective for the student if such an accommodation is available.
  10. Everyone Shares Responsibility for Accessibility: All college administrators, faculty and staff who use this instructional mode share this obligation.

The following applies specifically to distance education:

  1. Any time, anywhere-without assistance: "Learning anytime, anywhere" is a basic principle of distance education. Therefore, all distance education resources must be designed to afford students with disabilities maximum opportunity to access distance education resources "anytime, anywhere" without the need for outside assistance.

The above language is quite prescriptive. Here are two scenarios to illustrate just how strict SB105 and Section 508 are.

Scenario One:

The California Community College System undertakes an effort to negotiate a software solution that will allow for remote conferencing using telephone lines and the Internet. The System is ready to roll out the product when it discovers that the product is not Section 508 compliant and no alternate means is available to provide access for the disabled to the conferencing system. As a result, the System spends an additional six months working with the company to make sure that the product meets Section 508 requirements. If the company had been unable to meet Section 508 requirements, the System would have needed to look for another software solution since SB105 would have prohibited purchase of the non-compliant software.

Scenario Two:

Paul is a community college history instructor. He realizes that he has a significant ESL population in his course, and that these students would benefit from the ability to review his lectures. As a result, he arranges with media services for a video camera, which he uses to videotape each of his lectures, after which the tapes are put on reserve in the library. Under Section 508 and SB105, Paul must have the tapes captioned if they are to be generally available for the students in his class.


To summarize, legislation regarding access for the disabled is quite strict. Community colleges must have a plan to address the needs of potential students with disabilities. In addition, community colleges must ascertain the ability of products to accommodate the needs of the disabled prior to development or purchase. Cost is no longer a de facto excuse for not addressing accessibility issues. Section 508, as well as Section 504 and ADA, is with us now, and all community college faculty and staff need to respond to its requirements.

Ron Glahn has prepared a web page for updated resource materials concerning Section 508: