Section 508 solutions that work

When Congress reauthorized Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and started federal Web managers down the road to making their sites fully accessible for people with disabilities, the computer engineers at SSB Technologies Inc. knew how to help.

Founded by technologists with disabilities, SSB Technologies makes two software programs that focus on Section 508 compliance: InSight, which automatically diagnoses Web sites and Web-enabled applications for noncompliance, and InFocus, which automatically fixes the problems.

For example, text readers give auditory descriptions of Web sites for visually impaired users. But, as the National Park Service notes in its online primer to creating accessible Web pages (www.nps.gov/access/index.htm), many pictures and graphics—the visual cues for sighted computer users ó are marked with text that gives no indication of their meaning. On the NPS site, for instance, one picture of a husky with a glove in his mouth has a textual "tag" that reads "Park Photo 113.234. cr 2000," while another version of the picture is tagged, "A sled dog's day is not all work. This playful sled dog shows off the glove he's captured." The primer asks, "Which Alt text do you like best?"

SSB Technologiesë products are designed to eliminate such accessibility problems, said company president Marco Sorani, a Princeton University-trained engineer who was paralyzed several years ago in a swimming accident and uses voice recognition software extensively. When the company was founded last year, "we tried to see what the needs of the disabled community were out there," Sorani said. "What we realized was that one of the major stumbling blocks was getting on the Web in the first place."

That idea meshes with the process federal Web managers must undergo if they want their sites to be Section 508 compliant, experts add. "The real goal for them is to put themselves in the perspective of citizens and work their processes backwards—and not just to look at these issues from a bureaucratic perspective," said Pamela Lentz, a vice president with Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. who specializes in government information technology systems.

So far SSB Technologies—with 15 employees and headquarters in San Francisco—seems poised to become the Section 508 product provider of choice in many corners of the federal government. The company has contracts with the departments of Interior and Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Geological Survey, and its products are being used at several Army training centers and Navy bases. In late June, the Navy negotiated a blanket purchase agreement for the company's software, and last month SSB Technologies announced it would partner with Electronic Data Systems Corp. to make further inroads into the federal market.

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