Section 508 tips from the trenches

Electronic and IT Product guide

Which date? What tools? How to? These are some of the questions Webmasters are facing as they try to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the new law on accessibility.

Which date?

Some federal Webmasters are looking at June 21 for total compliance and some are looking at June 25 for new procurements. In actuality, there are two separate issues.

June 21 is the date set in Section 508, as written by the Access Board (formally the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board). June 25 is the enforcement date. The June 21 date should be the one to target because, technically, people can file Section 508 complaints on June 22.

But beyond the issue of the date, the question centers on compliance — total or otherwise. If at all possible, it is a great idea to make your whole site accessible. However, budgets and other obstacles may prevent that.

Some agencies, such as the Defense Department have made a policy decision to have all pages accessible by June 21. Whether your Section 508 coordinator or agency has required complete site accessibility is a business decision made at the agency level.

Having newly procured content comply with Section 508 is the minimum, but some agencies have chosen to take accessibility to the next level.

The next level has to do with individual accommodations — such as offering content in alternate formats — that are detailed in sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. To achieve this level, Agencies can develop their own "accessibility centers." One way to do this is by having a Web page that provides users with contact information (phone, fax, mail, e-mail, etc.) to request information in an alternate format.

Regardless of the agency's business decisions regarding accessibility, the agency is liable (not the individual Webmaster) if a complaint is filed. The agency is required to have accessible new content and should update old content as resources allow. If agencies are unable to meet this requirement, there are several defenses they can claim, which include: undue burden, national security, commercial unavailability, fundamental alteration, and "back room" equipment exception (derived from the Americans with Disabilities Act). It's best to consult with agency legal counsel about this.

What tools?

Many free and commercial tools exist to help agencies determine whether sections of their sites are not compliant, such as missing alt tags. However, no single tool will meet all needs.

With that in mind, it is important that staff members be familiar with developing content that is accessible. They should be trained to spot errors and to provide content in appropriate, accessible formats. Policies that spell out how content is to be provided will help to alleviate some problems in the future.

How to?

How will you know if your procurements are accessible? How can new Webmasters get up to speed on coding accessible pages? Keep tuned to the Buy Accessible page on the Section 508 Web site. It should go live around June 25. This initiative will enable vendors to identify their products as Section 508-compliant. (It will still be up to federal agencies to confirm this claim.)

New Webmasters will be able to claim their own Section 508 competency by completing a free, self-paced Web-based training course that the General Services Administration is developing. This should be online around June 30 and is open to anyone. Walt Houser, senior Webmaster at the Department of Veterans Affairs, has compiled a list of Section 508 resources that highlights tools, rules and resources.

By the way, a good book likely on quite a few Webmasters' desk is Michael Paciello's "Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities."

Tang is a Web designer in Fairfax, Va. Her e-mail address is tangb@ix.netcom.com.

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