Agencies prep for accessibility deadline

For more than a year, the federal government has urged agencies to overhaul their Web sites to comply with accessibility standards taking effect June 21. Now, with the deadline at hand, agencies are being offered new guidance — steps that might head off complaints and lawsuits for failure to comply.

Find the problems, schedule repairs, prominently post phone numbers and e-mail addresses so people can report faulty pages, and be willing to provide Web information in other formats, such as paper, advised Justice Department lawyer Mary Lou Mobley.

The new law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, requires agencies to buy information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities. The law applies to office equipment, such as computers, and to agency Web sites.

Mobley would not say how many agencies are likely to fail to meet the June 21 deadline, but during a Section 508 "awareness seminar" June 13, she said "tens of thousands" of federal Web pages could prove problematic.

Many agencies appear to be "very ready" for the deadline, said Doug Wakefield, who helped write Section 508 for the Access Board. But for others, there is still confusion about what needs to be done to achieve compliance, he added.

That was evident during the awareness seminar. A State Department official asked Mobley whether the law applies to the Foreign Service. "People overseas feel they don't have to follow the policy," he said.

Although there is no overseas exemption in Section 508, other laws and the nonavailability of accessible equipment may exempt State's offices abroad, Mobley said.

Department of Veterans Affairs Web designers said they set out to make all of the agency's 300,000 Web pages Section 508-compliant, but were forced to narrow their goal to making the top 20 pages on each VA site accessible.

Ten teams are working on VA Web page repairs. It takes two to five days to fix each page, said Webmaster Bob Volck.

An Agriculture Department Web manager said page designers there are struggling with accessibility on dynamic Web pages linked to USDA databases. VA technology expert Patrick Sheehan offered to travel across town to help. "It's important for agencies to work together because we have the same problems."

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