Section 508: Reconstruction in progress

Web technologies outpace accessibility law and require a major rewrite of 508 standards

Tajaun Farmer didn’t think he could have an information technology career. At age five, Farmer was diagnosed with glaucoma. The disease severely impaired his vision. Farmer graduated from college, but he never imagined that he could hold a job that required him to use computers.

“I really felt overwhelmed because a lot of the resources were not there,” Farmer said.

But as a federal contractor, Farmer has been able to work with computers, most recently as a call center employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has the benefit of computer screen readers and magnifiers that federal agencies are required to provide their employees under a provision of federal law known as Section 508.

Written as part of a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires federal agencies to procure IT that is accessible to people with disabilities.

However, that early provision lacked an enforcement mechanism, and few agencies complied. The Workforce Investment Act of 1997 amended Section 508 to set an enforcement deadline. All hardware and software sold to the government must now be 508 compliant.

But some experts say the 508 provision is outdated, which complicates compliance. Recognizing the problem, the U.S. Access Board appointed an advisory committee last year to review and rewrite Section 508. That task has turned into a major one as members appointed by the independent federal agency discover interoperability problems with new technologies and other shortfalls in the provision’s standards.

Everyone benefits
Federal employees have been the primary beneficiaries of Section 508, but they are not the only ones. Consumers benefit, too. Because all federal IT purchases must comply with accessibility standards, developers have added 508 compliance to their commercial releases. For example, Microsoft’s new Vista operating system is 508 compliant because the federal government requires it. 

“One of the purposes of 508 is to use the vast power of the government as a driver of markets,” said Jim McCarthy, director of government affairs at the National Federation of the Blind.

The IT market is highly competitive, said Michael Takemura, director of Hewlett-Packard’s Accessibility Program Office. “If you can differentiate your products, which can be the product itself or the information you’re providing, that gives you a competitive edge.”

Section 508 is the reason laptop cases have a single latch located at the top-middle of the screen, Takemura said. Early laptop manufacturers built latches on the side of the screen, but people with reduced motor control or hand injuries found them difficult to open.

Some of the greatest benefits to people with disabilities, however, have come from Web sites that meet 508 standards.

“508 has been superb for the Web and government Web sites,” said Don Barrett, assistive technology specialist at the Education Department. “You can say to developers, ‘This is not working,’ and they can go back and fix the HTML” code.

What is a disability?
No one disputes the benefits of Section 508, but complying with the law has never been easy. Barrett said the biggest reason for noncompliance is a lack of understanding among agencies and vendors about what a disability is, and the limitations it creates.

“Unless you’re familiar with disabilities, it’s esoteric,” Barrett said.

Another reason for noncompliance is easier to fix. In 2004, the General Services Administration and the IT Industry Council created the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that agencies and companies can use to assess whether a product’s features are 508 compliant.

VPAT is a good first step, Barrett said. However, procurement officials still might have difficulty determining a product’s 508 compliance.

“A lot of vendors will tell us, ‘We’ve sold to a number of agencies, and nobody really asked us [about 508],’” Barrett said. In some cases, he added, vendors simply claim that their product is 508 compliant, and agencies don’t bother to verify the claim.

Such behavior happens when accessibility is a low priority for an agency’s top managers.

“It’s critically important that you get top management support within an organization so you can make 508 work,” said Pat Sheehan, Section 508 coordinator at the VA. Sheehan said the VA’s CIO, Rob Howard, is a strong supporter of Section 508. Without Howard’s commitment, for example, a lot of technology wouldn’t trickle down to places where it is needed, Sheehan said.

In addition to getting managers’ support, testing products for 508 compliance is also critical. Testing reveals how specific products work for people with particular disabilities, Barrett said. Some agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, are committed to testing for 508 compliance before buying IT products.

“We do testing for procurements, whether it’s hardware, [commercial] software packages or internally developed applications,” said Mike Fratkin, an accessibility specialist at SSA.

SSA also releases guidebooks to help others learn about and test for 508 compliance. They also help vendors produce compliant products, Fratkin said.

The 508 provision has teeth. If an agency is non-compliant, people who believe someone has violated it can sue. However, no special entity oversees enforcement. 

Section 508 “doesn’t put anyone as the central authority,” said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation at GSA. “Effectively, the monitoring of 508 is if lawsuits are filed.”

However, no one has ever filed a lawsuit. But people have often used arbitration to enforce the provision in cases filed through unions and other organizations. Some arbitration cases result in large fines, which agencies must pay.

The National Treasury Employees Union took on a case in January 2006, which resulted in an employee receiving $32,000.

“When we see violations of federal laws designed to help and protect certain classes of employees, we take action through the grievance and arbitration process,” said NTEU President Colleen Kelley.

Outdated standards
Section 508 has received attention recently, however, because experts say its technical standards are outmoded.

“We’re trying to create guidelines that not only work today but also with technologies that are upcoming,” said Greg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center, which develops ways to make IT systems more accessible to people with disabilities. He is also chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility standards division.

“It is now possible to accommodate people with a much wider range of disabilities than ever before, but we’re finding many of the old solution strategies won’t work with the new technologies,” Vanderheiden said.

The 508 standards, for example, refer to tactile cues. That phrase creates confusion because many technologies now provide tactile cues. A tactile cue could be the horizontal nubs on the F and J keys on keyboards or the small bump in the center of cell phone keypads. A clearly defined standard for tactile cues could apply to a wide range of hardware devices and avoid some of the confusion created by vendors’ use of generalized terms, such as tactically discernible.

The committee of experts that will rewrite the 508 standards must also address the problem of defining disabled. The disabled and disadvantaged are not one homogenous group, Takemura said. A product that is 508 compliant for people with a certain disability might not be compliant for others with a different type of disability.

Keyboards are a good example. People with weakness in their hands or fingers need keys that are easier to strike than standard keys. But a keyboard meeting that requirement might not be appropriate for people with tremors, who might inadvertently hit multiple keys if they had to use such a keyboard.

However, the biggest challenge facing the standards committee is making the standards flexible enough to apply to new technologies. In their current form, the 508 standards barely acknowledge even well-established Web technologies such as Bluetooth, streaming video and Flash, experts say.

Federal agencies have made progress keeping their Web sites up to date, but the fast-growing use of Web applications has created new accessibility problems. Committee members were comfortable with Web site and software application standards, but they had difficulty defining 508 standards for Web applications. 

The committee expects to borrow from Web site and software development standards to create standards for 508-compliant Web applications.

“We should try to look at how some of these can be combined,” Fratkin said.

Web application standards, for example, lack requirements for keyboard shortcuts or hot keys that perform predefined functions. In contrast, software development standards require hot keys.

Current 508 Web standards require plug-ins to make browsing accessible to people with disabilities, but sometimes plug-ins fail to work in environments such as Flash, Java or Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language. Two of those environments — Flash and AJAX — fail to support some basic 508 requirements, such as keyboard shortcuts and screen reader compatibility.

Because of such problems, the advisory committee might be forced to consider 508 standards for some Web applications on a case-by-case basis, experts say. Meanwhile, the committee has formed nine subcommittees to review categories of products for 508 compliance.

Weaver said many of the committee members who are committed to improving Section 508 are disabled and have a personal stake in updating its technical standards. “It’s a fun challenge,” Takemura said. “[It’s about] how can you reach the broadest audience.”

VA call center program is a 508 success storyThe Department of Veterans Affairs helps many disabled service members returning from war, some of whom are unable to find work. The unemployment rate among blind people who could be employed is about 75 percent, according to some labor studies.

A program run by the VA and the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind seeks to employ blind veterans in entry-level call center positions.

The VA “is being able to bring in vets who are either still with the military or returning from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Pat Sheehan, Section 508 coordinator at the VA, who helped set up the call center program. Its purpose is to “create a level playing field that allows veterans to succeed,” he said.

The call center program helps other disabled veterans with employment and benefits questions.

“We were employed to give [veterans] the quality customer service that they were entitled to,” said Tajaun Farmer, who has worked as a federal contractor with the program since June 2002.

Federal employees win two recent 508 casesNo federal employees have sued the government over Section 508 violations, but some have filed grievances and taken their cases to arbitration. Organizations such as the National Treasury Employees Union represented employees in those cases. NTEU won two arbitration cases in the past year.
  • A deaf employee claimed that an agency failed to supply a sign language interpreter for group meetings that all employees were required to attend. The agency limited the use of interpreters to two days a week and required employees to submit requests for an interpreter two weeks in advance. In March, the arbitrator ordered the agency to make a sign language interpreter available during all working hours.
  • An employee who was visually impaired in one eye and legally blind in the other said an agency for four years refused to accommodate her disability. The employee, whose job duties were to scan documents and transcribe recordings, asked to have her schedule modified to include less time in front of a computer transcribing and more time scanning documents. The agency waited three years before modifying her schedule on a temporary basis and then another year before purchasing screen-reading software. The arbitrator ordered the agency to pay the employee $35,000 and restore her sick leave.

Digital helpersThe computer industry has much to offer those with disabilities — from voice synthesizers to screen readers, from Braille printers to large font displays. For this feature, the test center took an informal look at several new products designed to make life easier for disabled users.

— Patrick Marshall

Cyrano the CommunicatorCyrano Communicator
One Write Company
(800) 268-6070

One Write Co.’s Cyrano Communicator, which runs on the Hewlett-Packard iPaq rx3715 handheld personal digital assistant, is designed to assist people with speech impairments. 

The Cyrano Communicator software provides a context-based navigation system that uses text displayed on the iPaq’s screen and recorded speech so users can communicate with others. The trick, of course, is to provide quick access to a broad and customizable array of messages to deal with all the unexpected situations of daily life.

Cyrano does this by offering visual blocks grouped on pages. The graphic images on the blocks represent different life situations, such as school or meals. Each page can contain from one to 35 blocks. In addition, the blocks are customizable — you can use the embedded 1.2 megapixel camera to take your own pictures to use in the blocks.

Each block can contain an image, a text message, an audio clip, a jump to another page or a link to launch another program. 

If the prerecorded messages don’t do the job in a particular situation, users can turn to Cyrano Shorthand, an application that lets them type and store any message. Select an item, tap the stylus on the Speak button, and the speech will be read aloud in any of the four provided voice personalities. If you don’t like typing on the on-screen interface, you can purchase the optional wireless keyboard.

You can also record new phrases using the unit’s built-in audio recorder. And if you want better sound, you can buy the optional speaker case, which holds both a palm-size speaker and the iPaq rx3715.

One of the best things about the Cyrano is, of course, its size. The iPaq fits in a shirt pocket and weighs less than six ounces, which means it’s always easy to keep it handy. And the HP iPaq rx3715 supports Wi-Fi, infrared and Bluetooth connectivity.

We also found it handy that all Cyrano data is by default stored on SD memory cards. That means users can create context-specific libraries and, when moving from one situation to another, pop in the appropriate SD card.

The Cyrano Communicator costs $1,199.

— Patrick Marshall

Braille printingEmprint Braille Printer
(541) 754-4002

The Emprint Braille Printer combines a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printing engine with paper embossing technology. The result is the ability to print documents that look just like ordinary color ink documents but can also include Braille printing, raised text and math characters, and embossed graphics.

We were impressed with the flexibility of the Emprint printer. You can select three different levels of printing for each mode. Ink can be printed in draft mode, normal mode or optimized mode. Embossing can be printed light, normal or heavy. And you can use standard paper or Braille paper.

If you’re printing ink alone, the printer can handle three pages per minute. If you’re just printing embossed pages, you can get two pages per minute. And if the pages have both ink and embossing, you’ll max out at 1.4 pages per minute. 

The Emprint is limited in ink printing resolution to 300 dots per inch and in emboss printing resolution to 20 dpi. The printer is limited in paper size to letter — 8.5 inches x 11 inches — or legal — 8.5 inches x 14 inches.

One major plus is that Emprint uses the same paper and ink cartridges as HP inkjet printers, which means finding supplies won't be difficult.

The Emprint Braille Printer costs $5,995. 

— Patrick Marshall

Converting speech to sign languageiCommunicator
(718) 663-6750

Speech-to-text technology is maturing rapidly, as evidenced by the effectiveness of Dragon Naturally Speaking from Nuance Communications. But what about speech-to-sign language conversions?

PPR’s iCommunicator uses the Dragon voice-recognition engine to accomplish the first part of the conversion and then takes care of the rest itself. After the embedded Dragon engine has converted the speech to text, iCommunicator converts the text to video sign language. 

If the program encounters a word that does not have a sign, it will finger-spell the word. But don’t count on resorting to finger-spelling often because iCommunicator has a 30,000-word library of signs. And we found that the video replays of the signs are relatively smooth — not quite as smooth as a live signer, but certainly effective. PPR markets iCommunicator as an alternative for situations in which a signer is not available.

We found iCommunicator to be customizable. Users can adjust the signing speed. They can also increase or decrease the typeface size and adjust the signing window size. 

The program also has the ability to convert human voice to computer-generated voice, which can be handy when you want to amplify the voice. Users can adjust the speed and pitch of the computer-generated voice.

Finally, iCommunicator includes the iText program, which provides batch translation of documents, Web pages and e-mail messages.

The iCommunicator costs $6,499.

— Patrick Marshall

Nifty screen readerPocket Hal
Dolphin Computer Access
(650) 348-7401

If seeing your handheld computer’s display is a challenge, check out Pocket Hal from Dolphin Computer Access. We tested this nifty screen reader on a Hewlett-Packard iPaq hw6500, but the program will run on any personal digital assistant running Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition or Windows Mobile Version 5.0.

After you install Pocket Hal, the program tells you what’s going on and what your options are as you navigate your PDA. The program includes a large number of hot keys for performing specific actions. You might press 5 on the number pad, for example, to make Pocket Hal repeat the current word. You could press another key combination to get Hal to read options in the menu bar.

In short, you can get Pocket Hal to read aloud virtually anything you’ll encounter on your computer. The big challenge for users will be remembering all the hot keys. 

We found that Pocket Hal does a pretty good job. You can set Pocket Hal’s level of verbosity. If you turn that setting up, you’ll get more detailed explanations. If you turn it down, the explanations will be briefer. You can also toggle on and off features such as keyboard speech and character echoing. 

Pocket Hal supports a variety of folding keyboards, and you can use the program with Braille displays.  

The iPaq hw6500 with Pocket Hal that we tested costs $465. 

— Patrick Marshall


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