Section 508: Course 101 now in session

Christine Louton has a feeling that her Section 508 Web accessibility class has struck a chord.

Louton, head of the Interior Department's Accessible Technology Center (ATC), had brought a hands-on accessibility class initially offered only in Washington, D.C.—with sparse attendance—to Interior locations across the country. The response surprised her.

At a recent stop in Denver, three three-hour classes filled in one day, and another period was added, only to be booked in less than an hour. Officials with the department's DOI University, which has provided increased visibility for the class, were amazed at employees' interest. "They said, "You beat out the retirement classes!' " Louton said.

The class, offered since February and developed by Cherry Engineering Support Services Inc. (CESSI), begins by providing Webmasters and Web page designers a history and overview of Section 508. The section, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, mandates that the disabled be given as easy access to government information, including through Web sites, as anyone else. Mainly, however, the class gives students a chance to see for themselves how Web accessibility works—something that sets it apart in government.

"We're the ones that do hands-on [training]," Louton said. Although the General Services Administration and other agency accessibility centers offer Section 508 training, she said that Interior's class provides more hands-on opportunities.

"Really, [Interior] is the only one that has a class like this," said Janice Thomas, senior assistive technology specialist at CESSI, who designed the class presented in Washington at the ATC, located at Interior headquarters. Thomas spent seven months working with the department and compiled technical information from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Justice Department, WebAim.org and other organizations when designing the class.

In the version Louton developed for the road tour, the class spends most of its time on Section 508 "meat and potatoes" exercises after reviewing a brief legislative and regulatory background.

Issues such as alternative text tags, color independence, table design and page flickering are covered at length, she said. In one example, students, working at individual workstations, are directed to the ATC's site (www.doi.gov/atc) to see how alt tags might be improved.

The home page provides image links to pages covering the ATC's demonstration stations. An image of an ear, for example, links to the hearing station page. Students learn that representing the image only as "a drawing of an ear" doesn't help the visually impaired, who use screen readers, realize its purpose. To be compliant, the tag should say, "A drawing of an ear linking to a hearing station," Louton said.

Theonic Way, a Web applications developer at the National Park Service's Information and Telecommunications Center, said that when he took the class in Washington, he didn't know what Section 508 was about and at first didn't like what he found out.

"When I first learned all these rules and techniques, I was not enthusiastic about it," he said. "I felt that these rules definitely impose limitations on my creativity as a Web designer."

But after using accessibility technologies demonstrated at the ATC, Way learned how hard it can be for people with disabilities to navigate noncompliant Web sites.

"I wasn't very sensitive in the beginning until I was put in a position like that," he said. Afterward, "I felt motivated to make my pages totally accessible." Way is now working on a project to make an intranet application, the Project Management Information System, Section 508-compliant by the end of September. The system tracks National Park Service project funding requests from its parks and regions and follows whether they meet a set of criteria to be included in an official budget request. Way uses the ATC to test his pages for compliance as he goes along.

"I feel very proud [whenever] I pass the test now."

MORE INFO

Access to accessibility

The Interior Department's Accessible Technology Center grew from an Interior disability rights summit held in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in April 2000. Three days after the meeting, participants decided Interior needed a program promoting assistive technologies, said Christine Louton, ATC director. The program was launched Oct. 5, 2000.

The ATC (www.doi.gov/atc), developed with input from similar agency centers, features four work.stations that enable visitors to try assistive technologies used by those with hearing, sight, mobility and cognitive disabilities. The center not only serves those with disabilities, but also anyone who's curious about how assistive technologies work, Louton said.


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