Access.gov

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

noncompliance.

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

that hard."

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

accessibility standards.

"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

Council (ITI).

Hardware fixes may be the most difficult part of complying with Section

508.

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

hearing-impaired.

"Many people with disabilities who were capable of functioning fully

in the past were locked out due to technology advances," according to the

Justice report.

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

the e-mail.

"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.

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