Accessibility eludes agencies

508 takes effect, but many sites fail to comply

The date for posting fully accessible federal Web sites arrived June 21, and any expectation that agencies would be ready promptly vanished.

Accessibility tests conducted on more than 2,700 Web pages on several federal sites revealed that hundreds still did not meet standards for making Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

As of June 21, agencies can be sued for posting Web pages inaccessible to people with vision impairments, hearing problems, limited dexterity and other disabilities.

Government officials, however, played down the significance of the accessibility deadline. "It's premature to ask" whether federal Web sites are accessible, said Terry Weaver, who heads the General Services Administration's Center for Information Technology Accommodation. The accessibility law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, cannot be enforced until June 25, and then it applies only to technology and Web content that is "procured," she said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Access Board, which wrote the accessibility standards, cautioned that it is at times difficult to tell whether Web pages are accessible.

"Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, are complex programs and take extensive experience to master," Access Board members wrote in a statement posted on their Web site June 21. "For this reason, a novice user may obtain inaccurate results that can easily lead to frustration and a belief that the page does not comply with the standards."

But private-sector accessibility experts such as Robert Yonaitis said government Web sites fell woefully short of expectations.

Yonaitis, president of Hiawatha Island Software Co., Concord, N.H., tested Web pages from several federal sites with his company's accessibility verification software, AccMonitor, and found inaccessible pages in abundance.

The White House Web site was the worst offender, Yonaitis said. His software determined that 91 percent of the White House pages flunked accessibility requirements. In many instances, White House pages lacked alternative text tags that provide a text description of pictures and images for screen readers used by the blind.

A separate check of White House pages using another compliance verification tool, PageScreamer by Virginia-based Crunchy Technologies, also turned up numerous inaccessible White House Web pages.

The U.S. Postal Service Web site also fared poorly when AccMonitor examined 95 of its pages; almost 76 percent failed. A test with PageScreamer also labeled elements on some USPS pages as inaccessible. But USPS officials insist their Web pages comply fully with Section 508's accessibility standards.

A USPS Web expert said the agency tests its pages by having people examine them using assistive technologies such as screen readers. "That's the only way to know for sure" whether they are accessible, she said.

"We're compliant across the board," said Ray Morgan, Postal Service manager of technology and standards.

Nonaccessible Web pages leave government agencies vulnerable to administrative complaints and lawsuits by people unable to gain access to them. But it may be too early for legal action, said James Gashell, director of government affairs at the National Federation of the Blind.

If taken to court now, agencies would likely claim they are making a good-faith effort to comply and judges would probably be inclined to give them more time, he said.

"We're pretty aggressive on litigation," Gashell said. However, "we want to get access, but we're not out to play gotcha" with federal agencies. Before suing, the NFB would point out problems to agencies and suggest ways to correct them. "We're prepared to help agencies comply," he said.

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