Section 508 tips from the trenches
- By Beth Archibald Tang
- Jun 07, 2001
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.
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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.