- By William Matthews
- Aug 07, 2000
By the hundred, government World Wide Web page designers troop into an auditorium
at the General Services Administration for a crash course on accessibility.
They have three hours to learn the basics: Provide a text equivalent
for every nontext element on a Web page, write scripts explaining videos
and include visual cues to accompany audio prompts.
Spurred by the realization that time is growing short and that the task
ahead is enormous, the federal government is training a small army of Web
page designers to lead the coming battle against inaccessibility.
The government is under the gun. In about eight months, federal agencies
must begin complying with accessibility requirements. That means government
Internet sites and information kiosks must be made usable by members of
the public with disabilities ranging from blindness to impaired mobility.
And government offices must begin acquiring computers, software and office
equipment that can be used by employees with disabilities.
If agencies fail, one Web page designer explained, "They will have the
opportunity to be sued by the public."
It's the Law
Federal agencies are put in this precarious position by a 14-year-old
law that until now has been safe to ignore.
It's Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and it prohibits federal agencies
from buying, developing, maintaining or using electronic and information
technology that is inaccessible to people with disabilities.
A dozen years passed with little progress under Section 508. Then in
1998, Congress amended the law with the Workforce Investment Act to give
members of the public and government employees with disabilities the right
to sue agencies in federal court and file administrative complaints for
While applying legal leverage to agencies, Section 508 also shrewdly uses
government buying power to pressure companies to produce accessible products.
Section 508 standards will become part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation
and other federal laws that govern agency buying. Simply put, companies
that fail to create software and hardware that meet accessibility standards
will no longer be able to sell to federal agencies.
Enforcement was to begin this month, but delays in writing the standards
that agencies must meet persuaded Congress to push back the date the standards
will take effect.
The new date is six months after final Section 508 standards are published.
The standards are expected in late September or October, which would make
the compliance deadline next March or April, said Doug Wakefield, an accessibility
expert at the federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance
Board — the Access Board — the agency responsible for developing the standards.
For the most part, complying with the law will not be difficult, but
it will be time-consuming, according to Wakefield and other government technology
experts. There are hundreds of thousands of Web pages to be corrected. And
eventually, tens of thousands of pieces of office equipment will have to
be modified or replaced.
"It's Not That Hard'
With the possibility of legal action looming, federal agencies have
finally begun tackling accessibility. Much of their effort so far is aimed
at the Web.
Fixing Web sites first makes sense. "Web sites have the most impact
on the country," explained a contractor hired to help a division of the
Commerce Department bring Web pages into compliance.
While compliance efforts in government offices could benefit nearly 200,000
legally disabled workers employed by federal agencies, Web pages have the
potential to reach millions. For federal Web page designers, "accessibility"
means government Web pages must be usable by people who have vision or hearing
disabilities, have limited use of their hands or suffer from a variety of
other disabilities, from colorblindness to photo- sensitive epilepsy triggered
by rapidly flashing lights.
The job may seem daunting at first. "I've heard some Webmasters say
will need to take out liability insurance, or that they plan to take their
Web sites down altogether. That's outrageous," Wakefield said. "It's not
Often, fixing Web pages simply means attaching text explanations to
photos, graphics, and video and audio features so they can be understood
by those who have vision and hearing disabilities. Revisions may also include
changing some colors, improving the organization of information and providing
alternative text-only pages.
Among the biggest problems are tens of thousands of documents that were
created in Adobe Systems Inc.'s Portable Document Format and Microsoft Corp.'s
PowerPoint. Although they look like text, the documents are actually graphic
files and cannot be read by the current generation of screen readers or
translated for Braille displays.
The sheer volume of such pages probably means that not all will be accessible
when the deadline arrives, said Ron Kelly, who heads the GSA project to
teach federal Web page designers how to make agency Web pages meet 508 standards.
But the most commonly used federal Web pages will be ready, he said.
"I'm hoping that the 1,200 people who have gone through the program will
not design any new pages in the future that aren't accessible," Kelly said.
If Webmasters can manage that, the accessibility problem will be largely
solved, he said.
Because agency Web pages change frequently as new information is added
and old data is dropped, creating only accessible pages for the next eight
months will go a long way toward eliminating noncompliance among the most
com- monly used pages, he said.
As for the PDF documents, "There will have to be some judgments made
about what agencies are going to devote their resources to," Kelly said.
Questions about cost and compliance were weighed heavily at a recent
meeting of the Federal Web Business Council, whose members calculated that
there isn't enough money in the federal budget to create 100 percent compliance.
The best hope, they said, is that demonstrating "good faith efforts" to
come into compliance will be enough to shield agencies from lawsuits.
Fixing deficiencies in Web pages may be the easy part of complying with
the Section 508 standards. Accessibility goes way beyond the Web.
The Real World
Government agencies own tens of thousands of computers, software programs,
photocopiers, printers, telephones, fax machines and kiosk-like "information
transaction machines." All must be made accessible.
"It's not budgeted for," said Joe Tozzi, director of an assistive technology
team at the Education Department. "No one knows an estimate of the cost,
and it's not in the 2000 budget or in the one for 2001."
The Access Board has estimated the cost of compliance to be from $177
million to more than $1 billion annually.
But the law offers agencies a financial escape hatch. If compliance
is determined to be an "undue burden," agencies will not have to comply.
A clearer definition of "undue burden" and when it can be evoked are among
the details still being worked out.
'No Technological Showstoppers'
Whatever the cost, meeting compliance standards for software and hardware
"is going to be a very big deal," said the Commerce contractor.
A survey by the Justice Department conveys the scope of the problem.
"Almost all software applications contain some barriers to people with
disabilities," the department reported in April. Those affected most are
people who are blind or have limited vision and those who have multiple
disabilities that include limited manual dexterity, the agency reported.
Compliance may mean that computer operating systems unable to work with
assistive technologies such as screen readers or Braille displays have to
be scrapped, and software that cannot be used by disabled agency workers
will have to be modified or replaced, federal IT specialists said.
"But there are no technological showstoppers," said Don Barrett, an assistive
technology specialist for the Education Department. Indeed, for each problem,
there is a technological solution.
For several years, Barrett and a half-dozen others on an assistive technology
team at Education have been busy testing hardware and software to see what
meets accessibility standards that Education imposed on itself in 1997.
Fully compliant software is rare, the team found.
"We have not found any office suites that are 100 percent accessible
out of the box," Tozzi said. If the word- processing program, e-mail and
messaging features are accessible, that may be the best that's available.
"That covers what most people use most of the time," he said.
While testing software and hardware, the assistive technology team made
an encouraging discovery: Software companies usually have been eager to
make whatever changes are needed to meet Education's accessibility requirements,
Tozzi said. When a test of Corel Corp. software disclosed accessibility
problems, for example, the company scrambled to fix them within 48 hours.
Making Section 508 part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation will tap
industry's eagerness to please a customer with the buying power of the federal
government. Each year, federal agencies together spend about $40 billion
on information technology, and when Section 508 is incorporated into the
FAR, federal agencies will have to buy software and hardware that meets
"This is the largest buyer in the world saying it needs to be accessible.
Industry is going to actively pursue that," Tozzi predicted.
No Mandated Design
Industry officials agree. With so much money at stake, "someone will
meet the customer's demand — this a very competitive industry," said John
Godfrey, a technology policy director at the Information Technology Industry
Hardware fixes may be the most difficult part of complying with Section
The law applies to myriad office equipment, from copiers and fax machines
to computer mice and telephones. Today, according to Justice, most office
equipment creates barriers for the disabled.
From the liquid crystal display screens used to communicate operating
instructions and error messages — useless to the vision-impaired — to operating
buttons placed out of reach of people in wheelchairs, office machines are
generally not designed with the disabled in mind.
Many of those will have to be replaced, but not right away. Although
Section 508 requires agencies to "develop, maintain and use" only electronic
and information technology that is accessible, the law's enforcement provisions
cover only the "procurement" of those products.
That means agencies can be sued only for noncompliant equipment they
procure after the effective date of the Section 508 standards.
The law was written to avoid being "terribly design-specific," which
is good from industry's perspective, Godfrey said. "That allows you to innovate.
That's what ITI members are good at."
In some cases, the fix may be as easy — and as low-tech — as attaching
Braille labels to office equipment, technology specialists say. A more comprehensive
solution might mean designing a new generation of accessible office equipment.
But technology offers other alternatives. During its survey, Justice
found that "the extent to which copiers and fax machines are accessible
is greatly enhanced when the user can send commands from an attached desktop
computer terminal. Such terminals can be easily outfitted with the appropriate
assistive technology to meet an individual's needs."
Thus, office machines tied to office computer networks may eliminate
many accessibility problems, Justice reported.
Technology Provides Answers
It is somewhat ironic that the solution to the accessibility problem
is advancing technology, for that is also the source of the problem.
Two decades ago, before the mouse and graphical user interfaces and
the Internet, technology typically made it easier for disabled people to
do their jobs. Screen readers were adept at translating DOS-based computer
pages for the blind. Keyboard commands were simple and straightforward.
There were few, if any, audio features to impede deaf users.
But that began to change in the mid-1980s with the advent of the mouse and
the point-and-click applications of GUIs.
Icons and mouse cursors made computers easier for most people to use,
but they greatly complicated the task for many people with disabilities.
Screen readers and Braille displays could not understand buttons, graphics
or pictures. Documents that were stored in graphical formats were similarly
unreadable. To use a mouse required sight and a degree of manual dexterity.
And the increased use of sound created new obstacles for people who are
"Many people with disabilities who were capable of functioning fully
in the past were locked out due to technology advances," according to the
But the momentum of technology is changing, accessibility experts contend.
Developments that will help the disabled are starting to be recognized as
potentially useful to everyone.
Kelly, for example, has this vision: He's driving down I-395 outside
Washington, D.C., in rush-hour traffic so thick he dares not glance away
from the brake lights ahead of him. Gripping the wheel, Kelly says, "Computer.
Check e-mail." A dashboard light begins to blink as the car's computer fetches
"Read it," Kelly instructs, and a twangy electronic voice begins reciting
the contents of the first message.
The day may not be far off, Kelly said, when products designed for accessibility — like voice-recognition software and screen readers — will be recognized
as useful for a far wider commercial market.
When that happens, he said, accessibility will become part of the design
process for information technology, and inaccessibility will become a thing
of the past.