Compliance Countdown

In just four weeks, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the new law on accessibility, takes effect. Starting June 21, the electronic and information technology products and services that federal agencies buy must meet standards for being usable by people with a wide range of disabilities.

Section 508 also spells out, for the first time, standards for accessible Web pages.

To ensure that the standards are met, the law permits government employees and members of the public to sue federal agencies that remain inaccessible.

Federal agencies are scrambling to comply. But Section 508 is massive — it fills 28 pages in the Federal Register. "We've got a long regulation and a lot of misinformation and miscommunication," said John Sindelar, deputy associate administrator for the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

Section 508 has prompted some agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, to launch vast operations to overhaul tens of thousands of Web pages to make them fully accessible. Other agencies, including GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, have urged Web managers to weed out noncompliant pages as part of their accessibility strategy.

Others are taking the middle approach adopted by the National Park Service and NASA: concentrating on making their most popular Web pages fully accessible by June 21 and planning to tackle others as time and money permit.

"This is something every Webmaster in government is paying attention to," said Terry Weaver. As head of the Center for IT Accommodation at GSA, Weaver is among those who are leading efforts to bring government Web sites into compliance with Section 508.

With just a few weeks until the deadline, Weaver's office was trying to develop a short guide to Section 508 compliance for Web managers. But by mid-May, the guide wasn't ready, and the anxiety level among Web managers was rising, Weaver acknowledged. (For 508 compliance-checking tools, see reviews, Pages 23, 24 and 26).

Setting aside the lengthy and technically challenging Section 508 standards, one exasperated manager sighed, "Can't somebody just get me a one-page summary that tells me what to do?"

A one-page summary "would be a great resource, but to be honest, it would be oversimplified," said Beth Archibald Tang, a Web designer in the Information Technology Group at Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va.

However, she and other Section 508 experts said general guidance about accessibility and the new law could be valuable. The following 508 tips are a conglomeration of their advice.

Check the Law

Section 508 applies to electronic and information technology procured on or after June 21. Thus, Section 508 does not require agencies to "retrofit" technology, including Web pages, procured before that date, said Mary Lou Mobley, a lawyer and compliance expert in the Justice Department's civil rights division.

It is also important that "Section 508 is not enforceable unless something is procured," Mobley said. So Section 508 does not apply to Web pages produced by agency personnel, only those procured from an outside vendor.

That doesn't get you off the compliance hook entirely, however. Section 508 is a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. An earlier amendment, Section 504, which was passed in 1977, prohibits excluding people because they have disabilities from any program or activity that receives federal funding. That law is generally interpreted to mean that federal Web sites must be accessible. Until the standards for Section 508 were written, there were no accessibility standards to be applied to Section 504. Now there are.

Meeting Section 504 requirements may be easier than meeting those in Section 508. For example, it is possible to "accommodate" someone under 504 by providing paper text versions of documents on the Internet that are inaccessible, or even by reading information to the person over the telephone, said Don Barrett, an accessibility expert at the Education Department. By contrast, 508 standards require accessible technology.

The date agencies must begin abiding by Section 508 has been the source of some confusion. Section 508 takes effect June 21, but the authority to enforce it is contained in another law — the Federal Acquisition Regulation. That part of the law takes effect June 25. This creates a peculiar situation: Section 508 complaints and lawsuits are permitted starting June 21, but only about violations related to procurements made on or after June 25. Essentially, then, the effective date becomes June 25.

Make a List

An inventory of your department's Web sites and information technology is an essential first step, said Patricia Morrissey, a former Senate committee staff member who helped write Section 508. Find out what sort of computer systems and electronic office equipment your department uses. Determine how well it will work with accessible technology. Also, find out where your employees with disabilities are and what systems they use, said Morrissey, who is now a disability expert with the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton In

It's also important to determine how accessible your department's Web pages are. Try running some of them through "Bobby," the free, Internet-based accessibility checker at www.cast.org/bobby, suggests Tom Tate, co-chairman of Americans Communicating Electronically. There are many free Web page compliance testers on the Internet and numerous commercial products and services designed to diagnose and repair compliance problems.

The National Park Service recommends that you download a text reader, such as JAWS from Henter-Joyce, which offers a free trial version on the Internet, and listen to what your pages sound like to someone using a screen reader. Also ask for assistance from organizations for people with disabilities. Add an e-mail link to Web pages and encourage people to report any problems they have accessing the pages.

Barrett advises getting some "good end users" to look at your pages. Use a screen reader to check Java script and electronic forms. Have Web designers examine the page codes. They will be able to see whether images have required text tags, whether audio files have text versions, whether colors are used correctly and the like.

Armed with a general understanding of the department's systems and its Web sites, managers can begin developing plans for coming into compliance.

Turn Pictures Into Words

"Our biggest problem is alt-text tags," said Wyndeth Davis, a Web expert and Section 508 specialist at the National Park Service. As the manager of some of the nation's most scenic land, "we have a lot of pictures [online], and people really haven't paid a lot of attention" to attaching the alternative-text "tags" that provide descriptions of the pictures. Without text tags, photos and other images are meaningless to the screen readers that visually impaired people use to access the Internet.

In a Web site devoted to Section 508 compliance (www. nps.gov/access/target.htm), Davis offers a persuasive tutorial on alt-text tags. In two identical pictures, a tawny Husky stands sideways to the camera, a thick mitten dangling from his mouth.

Put your cursor on the photo on the left and up pops an alt-text tag that reads: "Park Photo 113.234.cr.2000." Move the cursor to the other photo and the tag reads: "A sled dog's day is not all work. This playful sled dog shows off the glove he's captured."

"Which alt text do you like best?" asks the tutorial.

Alt-text tags are also a problem for NASA, another agency with picture-laden Web sites. "When we were starting, we weren't thinking of what disabled folks might need," concedes NASA Web chief Brian Dunbar. Over the years, the space agency has produced 2 million public Web pages contained in dozens of Web sites and is among the most visited government agencies on the Internet. During the past year, the most popular Web sites have been brought into compliance, he said, but many remain to be upgraded.

Unlike many agencies, NASA's Web sites feature videos as well as photographs. The agency has posted video footage from many of its space launches. Because it was shot for distribution to television stations, the footage does not have accompanying audio or text tracks, Dunbar said. "If you have to fully caption Webcasts, they're not likely to be fully compliant," he said.

"Fundamentally, everyone recognizes this is the right thing to do," Dunbar said. "The question is: Is there time?"

Section 508 lists 16 Web-related requirements such as alt-text tags. Those that might deserve particular attention from Government Web managers include requirements for:

Data tables designed to make sense to screen readers. Accessible online forms, such as those used to apply for benefits. Links to applets and plug-ins that are needed to interpret page content. Providing text-only pages when compliance cannot be achieved otherwise. Managers should focus on Web pages that affect the public, Morrissey said. Those include the pages that attract the most visitors, pages used to apply for jobs and register for benefits, and pages that provide data tables, Morrissey said.

Web designer Tang urges managers to use Web log analysis tools to identify their sites' most visited pages and fix those first. Follow the most popular pages to levels deeper in the Web site and fix those, too.

Where possible, "take advantage of Web design software, such as Cold Fusion, to make changes across the site without having to fix each page individually," she said.

Manage the Risk

For many agency managers responsible for Web sites and IT purchases, Section 508 is threatening because it permits employees and members of the public to file administrative complaints and lawsuits for noncompliance.

Mobley reiterates, "Section 508 is not enforceable retroactively, so agencies should not be dumping" old Web pages that do not meet the new accessibility standards.

And although legal action because of old, noncompliant Web pages is possible under Section 504, the enforcement provisions under that section give agencies much greater leeway.

"The way to protect yourself is to have a plan," said Morrissey, the accessibility consultant. Being able to demonstrate that an agency is making reasonable efforts to accommodate people with disabilities now, and it has a plan for achieving full compliance in the future, may stave off legal action under 504.

"At least do something," Morrissey said. "It's much more defensible than if you do nothing."

Agencies should make nonaccessible Web information available in other formats.

Davis, the National Park Service Web expert, said, "Instead of looking at this as another nasty legal requirement that they have to comply with," government Web managers should use the opportunity to evaluate how effective their Web sites are at reaching their audience.

"It's hard to say where we will be on June 21. We're doing as much as we can to be as accessible as possible by that point," she said. "Maybe the biggest challenge of all is getting past the thought that this is not doable."

10 things you need to know

With the accessibility deadline a mere month away, here are the 10 questions managers should ask to determine their agencies' progress.

1. Who is your Section 508 coordinator?

2. Are your human resources, contracting, equal opportunity, legal and Web employees working together on Section 508 compliance?

3. What is your Section 508 compliance plan?

4. Do you have a Section 508 budget?

5. Have you included Section 508 compliance costs in your 2002 budget?

6. What part of your department's IT is contracted out?

7. Are you planning any major IT hardware purchases soon?

8. Do you have access to someone who can give you reliable advice quickly on Section 508?

9. Do you know which of your employees have disabilities and what technologies they use to assist them?

10. Whom can you contact to arrange for employees to get reasonable accommodation?

NEXT STORY: GSA nominee faces biz decisions

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.