- By William Matthews
- May 21, 2001
In just four weeks, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the new law on accessibility, takes effect. Starting June 21, the electronic and information technology products and services that federal agencies buy must meet standards for being usable by people with a wide range of disabilities.
Section 508 also spells out, for the first time, standards for accessible Web pages.
To ensure that the standards are met, the law permits government employees and members of the public to sue federal agencies that remain inaccessible.
Federal agencies are scrambling to comply. But Section 508 is massive — it fills 28 pages in the Federal Register. "We've got a long regulation and a lot of misinformation and miscommunication," said John Sindelar, deputy associate administrator for the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy.
Section 508 has prompted some agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, to launch vast operations to overhaul tens of thousands of Web pages to make them fully accessible. Other agencies, including GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, have urged Web managers to weed out noncompliant pages as part of their accessibility strategy.
Others are taking the middle approach adopted by the National Park Service and NASA: concentrating on making their most popular Web pages fully accessible by June 21 and planning to tackle others as time and money permit.
"This is something every Webmaster in government is paying attention to," said Terry Weaver. As head of the Center for IT Accommodation at GSA, Weaver is among those who are leading efforts to bring government Web sites into compliance with Section 508.
With just a few weeks until the deadline, Weaver's office was trying to develop a short guide to Section 508 compliance for Web managers. But by mid-May, the guide wasn't ready, and the anxiety level among Web managers was rising, Weaver acknowledged. (For 508 compliance-checking tools, see reviews, Pages 23, 24 and 26).
Setting aside the lengthy and technically challenging Section 508 standards, one exasperated manager sighed, "Can't somebody just get me a one-page summary that tells me what to do?"
A one-page summary "would be a great resource, but to be honest, it would be oversimplified," said Beth Archibald Tang, a Web designer in the Information Technology Group at Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va.
However, she and other Section 508 experts said general guidance about accessibility and the new law could be valuable. The following 508 tips are a conglomeration of their advice.
Check the Law
Section 508 applies to electronic and information technology procured on or after June 21. Thus, Section 508 does not require agencies to "retrofit" technology, including Web pages, procured before that date, said Mary Lou Mobley, a lawyer and compliance expert in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
It is also important that "Section 508 is not enforceable unless something is procured," Mobley said. So Section 508 does not apply to Web pages produced by agency personnel, only those procured from an outside vendor.
That doesn't get you off the compliance hook entirely, however. Section 508 is a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. An earlier amendment, Section 504, which was passed in 1977, prohibits excluding people because they have disabilities from any program or activity that receives federal funding. That law is generally interpreted to mean that federal Web sites must be accessible. Until the standards for Section 508 were written, there were no accessibility standards to be applied to Section 504. Now there are.
Meeting Section 504 requirements may be easier than meeting those in Section 508. For example, it is possible to "accommodate" someone under 504 by providing paper text versions of documents on the Internet that are inaccessible, or even by reading information to the person over the telephone, said Don Barrett, an accessibility expert at the Education Department. By contrast, 508 standards require accessible technology.
The date agencies must begin abiding by Section 508 has been the source of some confusion. Section 508 takes effect June 21, but the authority to enforce it is contained in another law — the Federal Acquisition Regulation. That part of the law takes effect June 25. This creates a peculiar situation: Section 508 complaints and lawsuits are permitted starting June 21, but only about violations related to procurements made on or after June 25. Essentially, then, the effective date becomes June 25.
Make a List
An inventory of your department's Web sites and information technology is an essential first step, said Patricia Morrissey, a former Senate committee staff member who helped write Section 508. Find out what sort of computer systems and electronic office equipment your department uses. Determine how well it will work with accessible technology. Also, find out where your employees with disabilities are and what systems they use, said Morrissey, who is now a disability expert with the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton In
It's also important to determine how accessible your department's Web pages are. Try running some of them through "Bobby," the free, Internet-based accessibility checker at www.cast.org/bobby, suggests Tom Tate, co-chairman of Americans Communicating Electronically. There are many free Web page compliance testers on the Internet and numerous commercial products and services designed to diagnose and repair compliance problems.
The National Park Service recommends that you download a text reader, such as JAWS from Henter-Joyce, which offers a free trial version on the Internet, and listen to what your pages sound like to someone using a screen reader. Also ask for assistance from organizations for people with disabilities. Add an e-mail link to Web pages and encourage people to report any problems they have accessing the pages.
Barrett advises getting some "good end users" to look at your pages. Use a screen reader to check Java script and electronic forms. Have Web designers examine the page codes. They will be able to see whether images have required text tags, whether audio files have text versions, whether colors are used correctly and the like.
Armed with a general understanding of the department's systems and its Web sites, managers can begin developing plans for coming into compliance.
Turn Pictures Into Words
"Our biggest problem is alt-text tags," said Wyndeth Davis, a Web expert and Section 508 specialist at the National Park Service. As the manager of some of the nation's most scenic land, "we have a lot of pictures [online], and people really haven't paid a lot of attention" to attaching the alternative-text "tags" that provide descriptions of the pictures. Without text tags, photos and other images are meaningless to the screen readers that visually impaired people use to access the Internet.
In a Web site devoted to Section 508 compliance (www. nps.gov/access/target.htm), Davis offers a persuasive tutorial on alt-text tags. In two identical pictures, a tawny Husky stands sideways to the camera, a thick mitten dangling from his mouth.
Put your cursor on the photo on the left and up pops an alt-text tag that reads: "Park Photo 113.234.cr.2000." Move the cursor to the other photo and the tag reads: "A sled dog's day is not all work. This playful sled dog shows off the glove he's captured."
"Which alt text do you like best?" asks the tutorial.
Alt-text tags are also a problem for NASA, another agency with picture-laden Web sites. "When we were starting, we weren't thinking of what disabled folks might need," concedes NASA Web chief Brian Dunbar. Over the years, the space agency has produced 2 million public Web pages contained in dozens of Web sites and is among the most visited government agencies on the Internet. During the past year, the most popular Web sites have been brought into compliance, he said, but many remain to be upgraded.
Unlike many agencies, NASA's Web sites feature videos as well as photographs. The agency has posted video footage from many of its space launches. Because it was shot for distribution to television stations, the footage does not have accompanying audio or text tracks, Dunbar said. "If you have to fully caption Webcasts, they're not likely to be fully compliant," he said.
"Fundamentally, everyone recognizes this is the right thing to do," Dunbar said. "The question is: Is there time?"
Section 508 lists 16 Web-related requirements such as alt-text tags. Those that might deserve particular attention from Government Web managers include requirements for:
Data tables designed to make sense to screen readers. Accessible online forms, such as those used to apply for benefits. Links to applets and plug-ins that are needed to interpret page content. Providing text-only pages when compliance cannot be achieved otherwise. Managers should focus on Web pages that affect the public, Morrissey said. Those include the pages that attract the most visitors, pages used to apply for jobs and register for benefits, and pages that provide data tables, Morrissey said.
Web designer Tang urges managers to use Web log analysis tools to identify their sites' most visited pages and fix those first. Follow the most popular pages to levels deeper in the Web site and fix those, too.
Where possible, "take advantage of Web design software, such as Cold Fusion, to make changes across the site without having to fix each page individually," she said.
Manage the Risk
For many agency managers responsible for Web sites and IT purchases, Section 508 is threatening because it permits employees and members of the public to file administrative complaints and lawsuits for noncompliance.
Mobley reiterates, "Section 508 is not enforceable retroactively, so agencies should not be dumping" old Web pages that do not meet the new accessibility standards.
And although legal action because of old, noncompliant Web pages is possible under Section 504, the enforcement provisions under that section give agencies much greater leeway.
"The way to protect yourself is to have a plan," said Morrissey, the accessibility consultant. Being able to demonstrate that an agency is making reasonable efforts to accommodate people with disabilities now, and it has a plan for achieving full compliance in the future, may stave off legal action under 504.
"At least do something," Morrissey said. "It's much more defensible than if you do nothing."
Agencies should make nonaccessible Web information available in other formats.
Davis, the National Park Service Web expert, said, "Instead of looking at this as another nasty legal requirement that they have to comply with," government Web managers should use the opportunity to evaluate how effective their Web sites are at reaching their audience.
"It's hard to say where we will be on June 21. We're doing as much as we can to be as accessible as possible by that point," she said. "Maybe the biggest challenge of all is getting past the thought that this is not doable."
10 things you need to know
With the accessibility deadline a mere month away, here are the 10 questions managers should ask to determine their agencies' progress.
1. Who is your Section 508 coordinator?
2. Are your human resources, contracting, equal opportunity, legal and Web employees working together on Section 508 compliance?
3. What is your Section 508 compliance plan?
4. Do you have a Section 508 budget?
5. Have you included Section 508 compliance costs in your 2002 budget?
6. What part of your department's IT is contracted out?
7. Are you planning any major IT hardware purchases soon?
8. Do you have access to someone who can give you reliable advice quickly on Section 508?
9. Do you know which of your employees have disabilities and what technologies they use to assist them?
10. Whom can you contact to arrange for employees to get reasonable accommodation?