Section 508 Refresh and document accessibility

10th January 2017 | by Sonia Purser

The last weeks of the Obama administration have seen the US authorities approve an update to the Section 508 accessibility standards, also known as the Section 508 Refresh. The purpose is to ensure that accessibility for disabled people keeps pace with advances in technology and to increase harmonisation with other relevant international standards. 

Section 508 and PDF accessibility

For those with an interest in PDF accessibility, significantly, the refresh of Section 508 incorporates PDF/UA-1 by reference. This is intended to allow compliance with the PDF/UA-1 standard as an alternative to compliance with WCAG 2.0, which is also incorporated by reference in the updated rules.

However, the Section 508 authors appear to have accepted the view that because of PDF/UA-1’s origins as a standard for developers it has some shortcomings if it were to be adopted as a complete standard for content producers. They specify as problematic, for example, the lack of requirement for captioning of videos and other related requirements for the accessibility of multimedia (but see also our comment below). 

So in the US, when the Section 508 refresh comes into force in about a year, both WCAG 2.0 and PDF/UA-1 will be considered authoritative when assessing what constitutes minimum accessibility requirements with reference to PDFs and other digital material.


In addition to the above mentioned concerns, we would also cite lack of support for non-screen-reader assistive technologies as an additional problem with PDF/UA as it currently stands, and as another reason to require conformance with WCAG 2.0 for all PDFs. 

Section 508 and ebook accessibility

Ebooks are only mentioned in passing, with a comment made that for non-web based technologies such as ebooks, WCAG 2.0 can be referenced once the refreshed Section 508 rules are in force.

As of the time of writing, given that the proposed merger of the W3C and the IDPF is still pending, we would add that conformance with the EPUB 3 accessibility guidelines as well as WCAG 2.0 is essential for producing high quality, fully accessible ebooks.


We of course welcome the Section 508 refresh as another significant step towards ensuring that all documents, and not just web pages, are made accessible to all.