New accessibility requirements could affect information and communications technology providers of computers, telecommunications equipment, software, and websites.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) published in the February 27Federal Register, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Board) proposed to jointly update the 1998 guidelines for telecommunications equipment and services covered by section 255 of the Communications Act and the 2000 standards for electronic and information technology procured by federal agencies subject to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

If adopted, the new accessibility requirements could affect information and communications technology (ICT) providers that sell to government agencies or organizations that receive federal funds. Examples of ICT include computers, information kiosks and transaction machines, telecommunications equipment, multifunction office machines, software, websites, and electronic documents. Subject to further rulemaking, the Federal Communications Commission may choose to enforce the new guidelines, thus formally extending them to communications providers subject to section 255 of the Telecommunication Act.

Key changes to the section 255 guidelines include (1) applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 to electronic documents and software, such as consumer manuals posted on a website, online registration forms, and interactive consumer support interfaces and (2) requiring real-time text (RTT) functionality wherever ICT provides real-time, two-way voice communications. To ensure RTT functionality, the Board makes a number of technical recommendations for interconnection with both the public switched network and voice over Internet protocol products and systems. Further, the Board also recommends certain functional performance criteria, for example, allowing changes to the requirements for visual and cognitive impairment.

The section 508 standard revisions consist of replacing a product-based approach with a functionality-based approach. The proposed revisions also (1) apply WCAG 2.0 to electronic documents and software, (2) require RTT functionality, and (3) expand interoperability requirements to specify how operating systems, software tool kits, and software applications should interact with assistive technology. Although a section 255–covered entity is not obligated to comply with the section 508 standards, it may elect to consult the standards, particularly if it wants to make certain products (or features of products) more marketable to federal agencies.

The Board is required to review and update the section 255 guidelines on a periodic basis and has been working on updated guidelines since 2010.

Comments may be filed with the Board on or before May 28, 2015. The Board will hold two hearings on March 5 in San Diego, California, and on March 11 in Washington, D.C., and will have a public webinar on March 31.