Accessible doesn't mean usable

An e-government initiative Web site that complies with the law's requirements for accessibility is not necessarily usable by people with disabilities.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act lays out technical requirements to ensure accessibility but stops short of linking that to usability, which guarantees a site is efficient and satisfying, said Sanjay Koyani, senior usability specialist in the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Usability is subject to agencies' policies in place," Koyani said. "Accessibility is looking at a very important but small section of our audience. There are not standards that have to be in place for the general audience."

To add to the complications, there aren't automated tools to assess usability, because it relies on user tests and constant evaluation to make sure users can find the information they are looking for with little effort.

Larry Mercier, director of the Government Online Learning Center at the Office of Personnel Management, likened the connection between accessibility and usability to a car that meets safety standards but is no fun to drive. "Usability has to do with what we experience," he said. "It's not written down in the law, but it's a problem."

Brad Hodges, technology accessibility manager at the National Federation of the Blind, recently experienced these problems while perusing several e-government sites using a screen reader. Although the sites were almost fully accessible, many were loaded with unnecessary links and information.

He often questioned the sites' layouts, which may present particular problems for someone not as well-versed in using a screen reader.

"I think we have an expectation that the site be technically accessible and that the site also be laid out well," he said.

Before building a site, managers should determine potential user goals and the mission of the site, Koyani said.

Once they have gained an understanding of the audience, site managers can then apply the information to the design process — making sure to test constantly.

To enforce Section 508, people can file lawsuits against noncompliant agencies.

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