Accessibility help on the way

With 29 days to go before federal agencies must begin complying with new accessibility requirements, the General Services Administration announced Tuesday that it will launch an online training course on how to create Web sites that are accessible to people with disabilities.

But the course probably won't make it onto the Internet until the end of June, about a week after the June 21 effective date of an accessibility law known as Section 508.

Another Web-based Section 508 tool, a product compliance "template," is expected to appear online in early June, in time to be of immediate assistance to agency procurement officials. Also produced by GSA, the template is to be an electronic form that vendors can use to describe how their products comply with various Section 508 standards.

The two Web-based tools are part of the scramble by GSA to help federal agencies abide by a new law that requires them to buy only electronic and information technology that can be used by people with disabilities ranging from blindness to deafness to dexterity problems.

The Web site design course is expected to offer step-by-step instructions on how to design Web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities, said Terry Weaver, chief of the GSA's Center for Information Technology Accommodation.

"It's a pretty slick curriculum," Weaver said Tuesday during a conference on accessibility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Designed to take about three hours to complete, the course will include page designing instructions and Web design exercises, she said.

Although aimed mainly at federal government Web page designers, the course will be available to anyone who wants to take it. It will reside on the Federal IT Accessibility Initiative Web site (www.section508.gov).

The product template will be at the same site. According to Weaver, the template will list Section 508 standards in a format that will enable vendors to describe briefly how their products meet each standard. A search engine will enable government procurement officials to locate templates for the type of products they want to buy. By comparing the templates, they will be able to determine which products best meet their agencies' needs and which best meet Section 508 requirements, Weaver said.

Section 508 standards apply only to items — including Web pages — that are procured on or after June 21. To complicate matters, the enforcement provision of the law is contained in the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which takes effect June 25.

Since Web sites produced by agency personnel are not "procured," they are not technically governed by Section 508. However, they are governed by another law, Section 504, which forbids spending federal money on any programs or activities that exclude people on the basis of disabilities.

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