508 relief is on the way

The General Services Administration is developing two Internet-based tools to help Web designers and procurement officials comply with new accessibility requirements that go into effect June 21.

One tool is an interactive tutorial that teaches agency managers how to create Web sites that are accessible by people with disabilities. The other is a template designed to help identify accessible products.

But the tutorial likely won't be available until the end of June, after the accessibility law takes effect. The template is expected to be ready by early June if objections from technology industry representatives can be resolved. The two Web-based tools are part of the scramble by GSA to help federal agencies abide by a new law known as Section 508 that requires them to buy only electronic and information technologies that can be used by people with disabilities including sight, hearing and dexterity impairments.

Government employees and members of the public can sue agencies that fail to comply. The law applies to Web pages, office computers, telephones, photocopiers and other electronic equipment that agencies purchase.

The template is an electronic form that lists accessibility requirements and allows vendors to describe how their products meet that requirement. Because it will present product information in a common format, the template should make it easier for vendors to tout the Section 508-compliance features of their products and make it simpler for procurement officials who must compare products from various vendors.

In addition, GSA intends to provide a search engine to make it easy for agency procurement officials to find templates for the products they are interested in buying. By comparing the templates, agency personnel should be able to determine which products best fill their agencies' needs and which best meet Section 508 requirements, said Terry Weaver, chief of GSA's Center for Information Technology Accommodation.

Technology vendors are concerned about the plan. One worry is that because the template lists products individually, it cannot adequately display the degree of Section 508 compliance achieved by multiple products or services working together, one industry official said.

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, Weaver said.

"It's a pretty slick curriculum," said Weaver, who described the tutorial during a conference on accessibility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology May 22. Designed to take approximately three hours to complete, the course will include page-design instructions and Web design exercises, she said.

Although aimed mainly at federal government Web page designers, the course will be available to anyone.

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