Advisory Committee faces major hurdles with Section 508 revision

Section 508, a provision of the federal Rehabilitation Act requiring the federal agencies make their information technology accessible to people with disabilities, is proving to be challenging for the standards body that is now revising the standards. The current iteration of the section is plagued with interoperability problems, language issues and an inability to adapt to emerging technologies, according to members of the Section 508 Advisory Committee who spoke on a panel at the 2006 Interagency Disability Education Awareness Showcase today.

The U.S. Advisory Board formed the committee back in early July to update the standards. Committee members predict that they will present a working draft of the new guidelines around July of 2007.

“We're trying to create guidelines that not only work today, but also with technologies that are upcoming,” said Gregg Vanderheiden, professor of the industrial engineering and biomedical engineering labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The panel said that emerging technologies have made current 508 standards obsolete. Bluetooth and wireless mobile devices, streaming Web video and asynchronous Java and XML-enabled Web sites have become common since the original standards were set in place.

Section 508 has separate standards for software applications and web applications, the panelists noted, one example of how technology may be leaving the 1998 law behind.

Mike Fratkin of the Social Security Administration said that there are issues missing from the section's Web standards that are covered by software standards, such as keyboard accessibility. Under Section 508, software applications must be accessible through keyboard shortcuts and hotkeys. Web 508 rules don't have this requirement even though today users often run applications via the Web.

Fratkin said consolidating similar technologies will be a major task for the committee as they draft the new report.

Another problem is creating a standard glossary for 508 terms. Michael Takemura, director of HP's Accessibility Program Office, said that certain technological terms can greatly vary. For example, the definition of what makes a device “tactically discernible” can be different from company to company.

The panel's work is further complicated because international standards for accessibility are also taking new shapes. The European Union set a 2010 deadline for hammering out accessibility standards, while non-European countries are also working on their own. Without interoperable international standards, vendors will have great difficulty with tailoring their products to meet requirements, panelists said.

“We're going to have to compromise a lot,” said Jim McCarthy, director for government affairs at the National Federation of the Blind. “But we hope that it'll be as applicable to government as it is to users.”


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