Accessibility

New approach ahead for Section 508 standards

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The U.S. Access Board's current draft update to the regulation governing website accessibility includes widely used international standards that would change the way federal IT managers are required to make their sites function for people with disabilities.

It is unclear when the new Section 508 guidelines will be implemented or what the timeline is for compliance. Federal agencies are vulnerable to lawsuits if their sites do not comply with the existing mandate.

Current Section 508 guidelines are written for specific types of technology. Categories include "Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications," "Self-Contained, Closed Products" and "Video and Multimedia Products." By contrast, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are not contingent on specific technologies, which makes them more adaptable to emerging technologies. The guidelines were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, the same international group that releases standards on HTML and other Web architectures

Tips for improving accessibility

Testing screen readers for users with vision impairments:

  • Listen to the page.
  • Interact with the page.
  • Test navigation tools.

Accommodating people with hearing impairments:

  • Add captions for videos.
  • Provide written transcripts of audio files.
  • Offer alternative methods for sound notifications.

Accommodating people with mobility impairments:

  • Test the use of speech software for interacting with the site.
  • Check keyboard shortcuts.

For more resources, visit the World Wide Web Consortium's website.

"To add new technologies to Section 508, you would need to change the standards," said Kathy Wahlbin, CEO and founder of consulting firm Interactive Accessibility. "With WCAG 2.0, you do not have to change the guidelines."

Wahlbin said many government sites are not as accessible as they should be. "I find that there are accessibility issues on a lot of the sites within [the federal government], but then there are [federal] sites that have been doing accessibility extremely well," she said.

Although Wahlbin said USA.gov is a generally accessible site, she demonstrated some problems with it during a webinar on Dec. 4.

The home page was mostly comprehensible when using a screen reader for people with low vision, but there were instances of code, such as headings, that made the audio output sound like alphabet soup rather than content. Wahlbin said that when developers introduced responsive design to make the site easier to use on smartphones and tablet PCs, new accessibility issues emerged.

Sample screen reading from USA.gov

Nevertheless, she said, "[USA.gov] had extensive work done on accessibility, and there's been even more work lately in testing with users with disabilities and using more assistive technology testing, which has made a huge difference in the level of accessibility of the federal site."

She was encouraged by the prospect of having federal agencies adopt WCAG 2.0. "I think that's a really good thing in terms of accessibility here in the United States," she said. "The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been adopted as a standard by many countries, and it will be really good to [synchronize] that with what everybody else is doing."

Wahlbin said the current approach to accessibility is outdated because rapidly emerging technologies of the past decade require additional coding to work with assistive technology, while WCAG 2.0 is "technology independent."

"The guidelines focus on making sure that the text is readable and understandable [and] that content appears and operates in predictable ways," Wahlbin said.

She said testing websites with different assistive technologies is the key to making sure the sites are accessible. Her main advice is to make sure they are "keyboard accessible," meaning a mouse isn't necessary for navigation. Otherwise, it "really blocks access for a lot of different users -- users who are blind, who are visually impaired, [and] those with motor impairments or dexterity issues."

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