Federal sites rapped over accessibility problems

Sites not always useful for the disabled, groups claim

When the revamped Recovery.gov site went live this month, advocates for people with disabilities noticed problems with accessibility.

For Recovery.gov, the site's administrators fixed the problems quickly. “The Recovery.gov folks fixed, within days, the most serious of the accessibility issues I identified, which is great,” said Seth Grimes, an information technology consultant.

However, the episode highlights broader accessibility problems. As the federal government extends more services online, compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal Web sites to use technologies to make them accessible to disabled users, becomes increasingly important.

Section 508 requires sites to use things such as captioned images and videos and ways to identify on-screen buttons for the visually impaired, among other requirements. Screen readers — software that interprets text on a site or document and then reads it aloud, or in some cases, prints it in Braille — are also common adaptive tools.

Jim Thatcher, developer of one of the first IBM screen readers, has found problems on WhiteHouse.gov, Data.gov and MakingHomeAffordable.gov. He contacted the Obama administration, and some of the problems were fixed, but not all. In machine-detectable accessibility errors, the WhiteHouse.gov site went from an average of three errors per page in April to one per page in June, he said.

Thatcher has had similar accessibility concerns about other federal Web sites for many years. Although Web designers’ hearts might be in the right place, many find the Section 508 rules hard to decipher, he said.

“It is really sad and discouraging,” Thatcher said. “People do not understand Section 508.”

The Justice Department performed Section 508 self-evaluation surveys in 2001 and 2003. But a more recent overview of federal Web site accessibility is hard to come by, said Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium.

“While I believe that there has been significant progress in federal Web site accessibility, we still often hear of problems with federal Web sites,” Brewer said. “It would be helpful to have updated and accurate data on the extent of current issues.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Oct 28, 2009 Editor

EDITOR's NOTE: Thanks for pointing out the error. It has been corrected.

Wed, Oct 28, 2009 Jenifer Simpson Washington DC

It would be good if this article had cited the statute correctly. It is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which pertains here.

Wed, Oct 28, 2009 Cynthia Waddell Int'l Center for Disability Resources on the Internet

The writer of this article has made an error by citing to the Section 508 provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 508 of the ADA is in Title V and addresses protections for Transvestites. Instead, the writer should have cited Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. This is the legislation that directed the US Access Board to promulgate Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards. These standards were published in December 2000 and became effective in June 2001. Otherwise, it is indeed a very serious problem that the website did not follow the Federal standards for accessible web design. It is also very troubling to frequently see multi-media and videoclips posted online that are not captioned. Persons with disabilities have a right to access data and information online. The more this information is not accessible, the more our community is locked out from participating in society. Cynthia Waddell Executive Director and Law, Policy and Technology Consultant International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet

Tue, Oct 27, 2009

What tools are available to check websites for Section 508 Compliance? Are there any freeware tools available?

Sat, Oct 24, 2009 Cliff Austin

You ought to get an accessibility review of your own page: -If you have a heading 1, I can't find it. -The main story on this page is a heading 3, and appears 42nd or so in the page order. -This form has no labels that assistive technologies can detect. And that's a 5-second analysis.

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