OMB to unveil accessibility standards

Long-awaited Section 508 accessibility standards have been approved by the Office of Management and Budget and may be published as soon as Friday, according to the federal Access Board.

Publication in the Federal Register will start a six-month countdown for federal agencies to overhaul their Internet sites and buy only office equipment that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Agencies that fail to comply with the standards could face legal action, possibly as early as mid-June.

For many agencies, Internet sites are the biggest worry.

Section 508 standards will require that information on Web pages be made "accessible" to people with a wide range of disabilities, including vision and hearing impairments, dexterity problems, color blindness and even rare conditions such as photosensitive epilepsy triggered by rapidly flashing lights.

Making Web pages generally accessible is not difficult, but it can be time-consuming, accessibility experts say.

Essentially, agencies must ensure that information on their Web pages is available in formats that can be used by people with disabilities. Attaching text labels to graphics and photos, for example, makes it possible for screen readers to describe them to computer users with impaired vision. Eliminating color coding, improving page organization and providing alternative text-only pages are other accessibility solutions.

Besides improving the accessibility of Web pages, Section 508 requires agencies to provide disabled workers with accessible office equipment. The law applies to computers and software, photocopiers, printers, telephones, fax machines and kiosk-like "information transaction machines."

However, the shift to accessible office equipment may be less urgent than the effort to post accessible Web pages. The law says agencies must stop buying non-accessible equipment, but it does not require them to scrap equipment they already own.

Section 508 is a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, but for 12 years it lacked an enforcement mechanism. In 1998, Congress gave the public and federal employees with disabilities the right to sue and file administrative complaints when agencies fail to comply.

Agencies will become vulnerable to legal action six months after the 508 standards are published in the Federal Register.

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