FYI: Section 508 compliance, at least for your agency's online services, is easier than you think.
ginettep at seals.org
Wed Jun 6 16:40:52 PDT 2001
By: SHAWN P. MCCARTHY
Government Computer News
A primer for online 508 compliance Take a deep breath and relax. Section
508 compliance, at least for your agency's online services, is easier than
you think. Meanwhile, most agencies' immediate goal is to get moving
toward basic accessibility. Tools for older docs To edit older documents
used on the site, Microsoft FrontPage 2000 has tools for inserting Alt and
other special tags. It's available at
vision-impaired visitors to your Web site easily understand the information
via their own screen readers? See details about both at www.hj.com.
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A primer for online 508 compliance
Take a deep breath and relax. Section 508 compliance, at least for your
agency's online services, is easier than you think.
At its most basic, compliance means updating your electronic files. But what
does full compliance mean? Will accessibility metrics stifle innovation? Can
developers of niche accessibility products make peace with mainstream
software providers that don't support every type of accessibility interface?
These issues will become clearer over the next few months. Meanwhile, most
agencies' immediate goal is to get moving toward basic accessibility.
As most federal systems managers already know, Section 508 of the
Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires agencies to make their
electronic information, and the information systems themselves, accessible
to disabled users. 508 affects everything from the height of office printers
to the functionality of agency Web sites.
"The greatest need right now is for web-masters to know this is an issue and
to know about the tools," said Bill LaPlant, a Census Bureau computer
Census has been working on 508 accessibility for about two years, LaPlant
said. That has meant hand-editing some files and running search-and-replace
programs to insert text tags for graphics.
Besides Web issues, amendments to the Federal Acquisition. Regulation,
published earlier this year in the Federal Register, set a deadline of June
21 after which disabled federal employees can sue if they cannot use the
same data and electronic equipment as other employees. See
www.section508.gov/docs/Final99607A.htm. Some exceptions likely will be
On the commercial side, the FAR amendments effectively force vendors in the
federal marketplace to meet disability guidelines or risk losing a chance at
future contracts. That clock starts ticking on June 25.
Meanwhile, an industry consortium that includes Compaq Computer Corp.,
Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Motorola Inc. and other
vendors is working with the General Services Administration to develop a
508-compliant product template.
The template will be unveiled next month, said Microsoft's Section 508
coordinator, Laura Ruby (see Interview, Page 16).
Where to start if you haven't already? First, help the vision-impaired.
Go to the home page of your Web site. Reduce your monitor's brightness and
contrast settings by 60 percent or more. Can you still see all the text and
If not, start by fixing your Web pages so that those with limited sight can
use them. Adjust the background and text colors across the site to achieve
greater contrast. Make fonts bigger. Post fewer and larger graphics. Make
sure you use the Hypertext Markup Language's Alt attribute to describe the
function of each graphic.
Tools for older docs
To edit older documents used on the site, Microsoft FrontPage 2000 has tools
for inserting Alt and other special tags.
If the pages are dynamically generated, you may only have to adjust the
templates and display rules. For older documents, several HTML editors have
search-and-replace functions to insert specialized tags or change text
across multiple pages.
If your Web server runs ColdFusion from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco,
you can edit the code with Dreamweaver UltraDev 4 Studio. It's available at
As you update, try to cram less information on the top-level pages and
provide ways to click through for details and choices.
Next, find out whether your own vision-impaired employees can access your
applications and data through their screen readers. Can vision-impaired
visitors to your Web site easily understand the information via their own
Start with internal client systems running Microsoft Windows 9x, Millennium
Edition, NT or 2000. Screen reader programs available for these operating
systems can send the text content on-screen to the computer sound card and
speakers via a synthesized voice or to refreshable Braille displays.
The JAWS, or job access with speech, application for Windows from Freedom
Scientific Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., is one of the most popular screen
readers. The same company offers its Magic app for screen magnification plus
speech. See details about both at www.hj.com.
While you're there, take a look at the streamlined JAWS product page. It's a
good example of how many 508-compliant pages might look in the future.
Another popular screen reader is Window-Eyes from GW Micro Inc. of Fort
Wayne, Ind. Window-Eyes and an MS-DOS reader called Vocal-Eyes are available
Alva Access Group Inc. of Oakland, Calif., also makes products to improve
accessibility. For information about Alva's Unix screen readers and Braille
interfaces, visit www.aagi.com/aagi/crossref03.html. And for information
about its outSpoken screen reader for the Mac OS, visit
If your agency's internal legacy applications are accessible through a Web
interface, a good part of your job is done. Browser-compatible screen
readers effectively open up public access to databases, article archives and
applications. Without legacy-to-Web access, you face more of a challenge.
Your best investment might be to develop Web interfaces for older
information systems rather than try to invent screen readers and other
access methods for each of them.
The next challenge is data presentation on the page.
Frames are always a problem for disabled users. Even though some screen
readers can analyze frames, the reading order is unclear. Listeners get
confused, and navigation can be difficult. If you haven't yet moved from
frames to dynamically generated pages, it is now time to do so.
Another issue is the format of the information on pages. Data elements must
be properly tagged. In the best case, that means following the User Agent
Accessibility Guidelines set up by the World Wide Web Consortium. View the
working document at www.w3.org/TB/2001/WD-UAAG10-20010409.
The rules are extensive. The level of detail about tagging and display,
HTML, Extensible Markup Language, style sheets and the like extends beyond
the scope of your immediate deadlines.
Consider the guidelines a map for where the world is heading in the long
term, not where you need to be next month.
To make a quick assessment of how your site stacks up, try the Bobby tool
created by the Center for Applied Special Technology of Peabody, Mass.
You'll find it at www.cast.org/bobby.
Avoid tables on your pages whenever possible. If tables must be used for
multicolumn text, make sure you follow the standards for how the text should
Some government data has to appear in tabular format. The trick is to keep
the tables as short as possible, so viewers don't drown in data before they
can digest it. Headers that span multiple columns also are confusing and
should be avoided.
Census' LaPlant suggested conducting two tests. First, download the free
Links text browser from links.sourceforge.net to review the way your site
will look to a screen reader.
Second, find employees at your agency who already use assistive technology.
Ask them to review your site.
The final and greatest challenge is legacy data. Government sites have
thousands of databases and documents that don't meet the 508 standards.
Here are some quick fixes:
If your agency builds tables and charts on the fly from real-time data,
check out the PopChart D-link descriptive text tool from Corda Technologies
Inc. of Lindon, Utah.
The Corda tool inserts Alt descriptions as charts and graphs are built,
making data accessible to screen readers.
Details about PopChart appear at www.corda.com/press/d/prerelease.cfm.
Whether you are creating new files or cleaning up older ones, make the
changes within the same markup tool that you use to create files.
The most urgent deadline right now is to achieve basic compliance with 508.
Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail
him at smccarthy at lycos-inc.com.
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