Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and PDF Accessibility

Introduction to Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is a critical piece of legislation that requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This is not just a matter of legal compliance but a commitment to inclusivity, enabling everyone to participate in the digital world regardless of their physical capabilities.

The Importance of Section 508

Why is Section 508 so important? Imagine being unable to access vital information, interact with services, or perform your job simply because a website or document wasn’t designed with your needs in mind. That’s the reality for many individuals with disabilities, and Section 508 helps address these issues.

Key Provisions of Section 508

Section 508 covers a wide range of technology, including hardware, software, multimedia, and telecommunications. It mandates that these technologies must be accessible, whether they are used by federal employees or members of the public. It specifically covers any documents that are posted to the web which can include PDF, PPT, Word, Excel, HTML, and other types.

Understanding PDF Accessibility

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a common file format used to present and exchange documents reliably, independent of software, hardware, or operating system. However, not all PDFs are created equal when it comes to accessibility.

Importance of PDF Accessibility

PDF accessibility is crucial as it allows users with disabilities to interact with the document using assistive technologies. An accessible PDF has features such as text that can be read aloud by screen readers, the ability to navigate using a keyboard, and alternative text for images. We have an entire section dedicated to this subject: PDF Accessibility. We can also make your documents accessible for you with our Accessible Document Service.

How to Make PDFs Accessible

Creating accessible PDFs involves several steps. This includes adding tags to provide a hidden structured, textual representation of the PDF content, providing alternative text for non-text content, and setting the language for the document.

The Intersection of Section 508 and PDF Accessibility

Now that we understand Section 508 and PDF accessibility separately, let’s look at how they intersect.

How Section 508 Influences PDF Accessibility

Section 508 plays a crucial role in PDF accessibility. Under this law, all PDF documents created, used, or distributed by federal agencies must be accessible. This includes PDFs available on federal websites and those used internally.

Real World Applications

Examples of Section 508 in action can be seen across federal websites. For instance, all PDF forms for tax filing provided by the IRS are designed to meet Section 508 requirements. Here are some additional real-world applications:

  • Government Websites: Government websites are required to comply with Section 508 standards. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has a website that is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. The SSA website includes features such as text alternatives for any non-text content, the ability for users to resize text up to 200 percent without loss of content or functionality, and information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  • Federal Employment Applications: Federal agencies are required to provide applications and other employment information in a format that is accessible. This might involve providing electronic documents that are compatible with screen readers or offering Braille or large print versions of documents.
  • Online Training Materials: Any training materials provided by federal agencies, such as online courses or webinars, must be made accessible. This might involve providing captions for videos, ensuring online quizzes are navigable via a keyboard, or offering transcripts of audio content.
  • Public Schools: While not strictly required by Section 508, public schools often follow Section 508 guidelines as a best practice. This can involve ensuring that online learning platforms are accessible, providing textbooks in an accessible digital format, or ensuring that school websites are navigable and readable for users with disabilities.
  • Emergency Notification Systems: Federal emergency notification systems are required to be accessible under Section 508. This can involve providing text alerts that can be read by screen readers, offering alerts in alternative formats such as Braille, or providing sign language interpreters for televised emergency broadcasts.

Challenges in Implementing Section 508 in PDFs

Despite the clear guidelines, implementing Section 508 in PDFs can be a significant hurdle for many organizations. The complexity of making a PDF fully accessible can be daunting, particularly for large documents or those with numerous images and tables. Book the Accessibility Guy for training.

Common Issues and Their Solutions

Common challenges include issues with untagged PDFs, improperly labeled form fields, and images without alternative text. Solutions include using the accessibility tools provided in PDF creation software, such as Adobe Acrobat’s accessibility checker, and leveraging third-party services that specialize in PDF remediation.

Resources for Meeting Section 508 Compliance

The Accessibility Guy offers

The Future of Section 508 and PDF Accessibility

As technology evolves, so too do the standards for accessibility.

Advancements and Innovations

New advancements and innovations are continually emerging in the field of digital accessibility. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to automate some aspects of PDF remediation, reducing the time and effort required to make PDFs accessible.

Role of AI and Automation

AI and automation are set to play an increasingly significant role in PDF accessibility. These technologies can help automate labor-intensive tasks such as tagging and provide more effective ways of checking for accessibility issues.


Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and PDF accessibility are closely intertwined. By understanding and adhering to Section 508, we can make PDFs and other digital content more accessible, ultimately creating a more inclusive digital world.

It does not directly apply to state or local governments or private organizations, including colleges and universities.

However, California has a state law, the California Government Code Section 11135, which is very similar to Section 508. This law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities conducted, funded, or operated by the state, which includes public colleges and universities in California. As a part of this, California has adopted the Section 508 standards as the benchmark for their state accessibility requirements, which is likely where the confusion arises.

Moreover, many colleges and universities, regardless of whether they’re public or private, or where they’re located, adhere to Section 508 standards as a best practice for digital accessibility. This is especially true as more and more educational content moves online. They may also be required to meet accessibility standards under other laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which prohibit discrimination based on disability.

Therefore, while Section 508 itself may not be a requirement for all colleges in California, the principles of digital accessibility it promotes are widely recognized and implemented in higher education settings across the state and the country.


  1. What is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act? Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.
  2. Why is PDF accessibility important? PDF accessibility allows individuals with disabilities to interact with PDF documents using assistive technologies, like screen readers or keyboard navigation.
  3. What are some common challenges in making PDFs accessible? Common challenges include untagged PDFs, improperly labeled form fields, and images without alternative text.
  4. What resources are available to help with Section 508 compliance? There are numerous resources available, including the Access Board’s Guide to the Section 508 Standards and various online tutorials and webinars.
  5. How is technology like AI influencing PDF accessibility? AI and automation are being used to automate some aspects of PDF remediation, making it easier and more efficient to create accessible PDFs.
  6. Does the accessibility guy provide these services? I sure do. Check out our Accessible Document Services page.