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By now, most of us have at least heard of the new accessibility standards that go into effect in June. The new standards, innocuously labeled Section 508, call for federal agencies to provide fair access to technology for federal employees with disabilities and equal access to electronic content for citizens with disabilities. The legislation has federal information technology managers and technology vendors alike scurrying for information on how to comply with these new standards and maneuvering to meet the June 25 compliance deadline.
Regardless of where you stand in the debates surrounding the timetable for implementing the standards, no one disagrees with the intent of the legislation. However, figuring out what federal IT buyers and Web site managers need to do to comply with the standards is quite a different issue. So here are some suggestions for those two groups.
For federal IT buyers: When hunting for compliant IT equipment and software, plan on spending a little more, and sometimes much more, on it than on traditional purchases. Although vendors may share some of the expense of complying with the standards, government agencies can expect to carry the bulk of the costs that vendors incur in developing compliant products.
Also, do your due diligence to find companies that have prepared products that comply with the standard and give them preference. A number of companies have spent a lot of time and energy developing products to address the accessibility issue well before it was required by law. In many cases, you will be surprised at how creative vendors have been in developing technology that conveniently and inexpensively helps you comply with the regulations.
For Web site managers: Developing Web sites that comply with the new standards is probably the stickiest accessibility issue. Designing a site from scratch that meets accessibility standards does require additional thought and foresight, but it is a relatively simple and straightforward thing to do. The key is keeping the interface simple but functional. Flashy technology and interactive sites can make for a great experience for the average user, but if not implemented carefully, the technologies frequently ignore issues of accessibility.
However, the real challenge comes in retrofitting existing sites to make them compliant. Frequently, it is not as simple as rewriting a page or two; it may require rewriting an entire Web site or application. It can involve a great deal of time, and the costs can be steep. With the relative speed in which these standards are being put in place, there is no doubt few agency Web managers have planned for these changes in their existing budgets.
The new standards do present some unexpected hardships for federal IT buyers, vendors and Web site managers. However, with careful planning and cooperation, we should be able to look back on the Section 508 deadline just as we look back on the Year 2000 problem — wondering what all the fuss was about.
Plexico is vice president and chief technology officer at Input, an information technology market research and marketing services company in Chantilly, Va.