E-gov projects receive 508 attention

As the Health and Human Services Department prepared to launch the latest version of Grants.gov last month, usability testers hit a snag.

The software that lets users fill out grant application forms online did not meet the accessibility standards under Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments.

“We looked at the initial site with a screen viewer and found significant 508 issues,” said Don Barrett, a member of the Education Department’s Assistive Technology Program team, which is helping the Quicksilver e-government projects meet accessibility standards. “Program officials went back to the vendor and got it fixed.”

Leaders of the 25 Quicksilver projects are finding that often not enough attention has been paid to accessibility in developing the programs, Barrett said.

In the last year, requests to assist other e-government projects have increased, but he is not sure exactly how many the Assistive Technology team has received.

“We have a testing facility and the skills to verify 508 compliance that many agencies don’t have,” he said. “Some e-government projects have struggled, and I’m not surprised by that because the 508 requirements still are pretty new. Agencies and vendors are doing more and more as they understand the requirements better, but it is slow moving.”

The Office of Management and Budget earlier this month reminded agencies to ensure 508 requirements are considered as early as possible during projects.

In a memo to agency executives, Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for IT and e-government, said agencies must do more than automated testing.

Human touch

“While automated accessibility assessment tools are useful, human testing with expert screen readers is critical to ensuring that your application meets the standards,” Evans said.

Sharon Whitt, a project manager from the National Archives and Records Administration who is working on the E-Rulemaking initiative, said the memo inspired her to double-check the site to make sure it was compliant, which it was. So far, agency success when it comes to complying with 508 has been mixed. Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy this year examined 1,663 state and federal Web sites and found 22 percent of the federal and 24 percent of the state sites met Section 508 standards.

To help agencies focus on accessibility, OMB and the General Services Administration are developing a 508 implementation guide. It’s required by the E-Government Act of 2002, said Terry Weaver, director of GSA’s Center for Information Technology Accommodation. But Quicksilver projects have always been given special consideration, Weaver said.

“Early on OMB recognized Section 508 was important for e-government efforts,” she said. “The 508 Working Group put together a tutorial on what 508 is about and how it impacted them, and we did a more detailed event by bringing in people such as Don Barrett to tell them how important testing is.”

Weaver said the group collected names of volunteers who said they would assist Quicksilver project directors in assessing sites.

While OMB has no official e-government compliance numbers, Craig Luigart, the Veterans Affairs Department’s associate deputy assistant secretary for policies, plans and programs, and the 508 Working Group co-chairman, said some members did an informal review of a number of projects and found some needed more support.

Evans’ memo “will be more than sufficient to refocus those few that may have overlooked any elements, thereby assuring they are in full compliance,” he said.

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