Tech outpaces Section 508 standards

Standards committee expects to update Section 508 for easier compliance

It has been nearly 10 years since Congress passed legislation to make electronic information accessible to federal employees with disabilities. When the General Services Administration established the necessary standards for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, information technology functions were viewed in isolation. But as IT becomes increasingly integrated with other business functions, agencies are finding it more difficult to interpret and implement the standards, said Patrick Sheehan, the Veterans Affairs Department’s Section 508 coordinator.

A committee with representatives from government and industry is addressing those shortcomings. Officials representing the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee said they plan to maintain the structure of the current standards, which cover six categories of products, and submit recommendations to the  Access Board this fall. But the committee also intends to take a more expansive view and identify aspects of the existing standards that might create barriers to implementation, said Jim Tobias, the committee’s co-chairman.

The Access Board, an independent federal agency, created the committee last year to solicit suggestions about how to make accessibility standards easier to implement. It is composed of representatives from 42 industry, consumer, government and international groups. The public can submit comments to the committee through its subcommittees and its collaborative wiki site, www.teitac.org, Tobias said.

The committee’s primary challenges include making accessibility standards easier for government employees to adopt but broad enough to encompass more devices and software — all without losing the clarity found in the existing standards, Sheehan said.

Although all federal agencies have Section 508 coordinators, their success in implementing the standards depends on managerial support and agency culture, Sheehan said.

“The most critical thing for Section 508 implementation is support from upper management,” Sheehan said. “It has to start from the top so that proper resources are given to 508. Also, Section 508 is an extension of what has been ingrained in the culture and mission of VA.”

Agencies that interact with the public and spend a lot of time managing and disseminating information have missions that rely on accessibility and employees devoted to addressing issues related to it, said Timothy Creagan, the Access Board’s senior accessibility specialist. Those factors helped make the Social Security Administration, VA, the Education Department and the Internal Revenue Service leaders in accessibility, he added.

Many agencies have failed to comply with Section 508 standards because of a lack of time and understanding, said Kathy Wahlbin, director of user experience at Mindshare Interactive Campaigns. She added that it is important to write clear guidelines.

“People have a hard time understanding how others use the Web, let alone people with disabilities,” she said. However, the guidelines can only go so far, she added. “The users and Web site developers have to know how to use the tools.”

Cranmer is an intern at 1105 Government Information Group.

Disabilities necessitate a broader scope for 508The term disabilities now covers more than hearing, speech and mobility impairments. The Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee will consider how to create new electronic and information technology standards that accommodate cognitive disabilities. Those impairments include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, AIDS-related dementia and traumatic brain injuries.

Because such disabilities tend to be less apparent, they are more pervasive than most people realize, disability experts say. With the aging baby boomer population and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of Americans with cognitive disabilities is increasing, said Pat Sheehan, the Veterans Affairs Department’s Section 508 compliance
director.

The advisory committee has studied the Medicaid Reference Desk (www.thedesk.info) as a model Web site for assisting people with disabilities. The site uses icons instead of text and presents information in a straightforward manner without moving images.

— Jana Cranmer

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