Good news

Webucator now offers Web Accessibility training based on this tutorial. The five stars web accessibility book, Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance, is provided with the course when delivered for private groups. The Web Accessibility Tutorial itself is also available on the Webucator site.

Web Accessibility for Section 508

Most of you are here for this course because you want to know what you must do to make your web pages accessible according to the Section 508 standards. In this introductory section we will discuss the nature of the important "Section 508" legislation that brings us together and what it means for information technology to be accessible.

What is Section 508?

The legislation referred to as "Section 508" is actually an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The amendment was signed into law by President Clinton on August 7, 1998. Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology that is developed by or purchased by the Federal Agencies be accessible by people with disabilities.

The 1986 version of Section 508 established non-binding guidelines for technology accessibility while the 1998 version created binding, enforceable standards that are incorporated into the Federal Procurement process.

In addition to providing for enforceable standards, the amended Section 508 established a complaint procedure and reporting requirements, which further strengthen the law.

Contrary to what you may read on the web, Section 508 does not directly apply to private sector web sites or to public sites which are not U.S. Federal agency sites. In fact it doesn't even apply to the Congress or to the Judiciary. It also does not (generally) apply to agencies or establishments using Federal funds. So if it does not apply to all these institutions, what's the purpose? Those who crafted the law noted that the combined purchasing power of Federal agencies is tremendous. They believed that if the Federal agencies required accessible IT, then companies would respond by (1) offering accessible IT to the government and (2) rather than have two sets of products, they would offer accessible IT for everybody. At IBM in the late 90's, for example, the decision was to build accessibility into the entire development process - company wide. It just didn't make sense to have two sets of products.

But there is more to the 508 story. Section 508 provides accessibility standards for all information technology. Our focus here is web accessibility. But 508 covers all information technology and it is the only standard that does so. Computer software, hardware, and documentation are all covered by Section 508. When states wanted to require accessible information technology, they turned to the Section 508 Accessibility Standards to define "accessibility".

Back to the basics - Federal agencies must purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible to employees and the members of the public who are disabled - providing that it is not an undue burden on the agency. This means that if two companies are bidding a government contract and one is offering accessible solutions, then the accessible technology is likely to (should) win the contract.

What Does it Mean to be "Accessible?"

Basically, technology is accessible if it can be used as effectively by people with disabilities as by those without. This doesn't mean that a blind user will complete a task on a web site as fast as one who can see. Listening takes longer than looking at the screen and reading. But the processes must be comparable. How can that "definition" of "accessible" help a web developer or a hardware designer know what to do to make his or her product comply with Section 508 so as to compete for Federal bids? The answer is that that definition really doesn't help very much. Developers don't know how people with disabilities use computers. What people? What disabilities? Companies don't have the resources to have all their products tested by people with all disabilities; it is very good to do usability testing with people with disabilities, but hopeless to use such testing as the measure of product accessibility.

Instead, Section 508 required that the Access Board define accessibility through a set of standards. To do that the Board empanelled the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) in October of 1998. (The author of this course, representing IBM, was Vice Chair of that Advisory Committee.)

EITAAC was composed of representatives from industry, academics, government and disability advocacy organizations. The group proposed standards for accessible electronic and information technology. The Access Board took the recommendations of the advisory committee, and created a "proposed rule" issued by the Access Board on March 31, 2000. After a public comment period a final rule was issued on December 21, 2000. This final rule contains the standards for accessible electronic and information technology that are the heart of the Section 508 enforcement which began in June of 2001.

Standards Make the Job Easier

The final Section 508 rule includes so-called functional standards that require, for example, that there be a way for a person who is mobility impaired or blind to use your product or web site. So as a fall-back position, if the technical standards don't make requirements clear,if new technology is being employed, the functional requirements fill the gap.

The Section 508 technical standards say your web site has to satisfy sixteen specific items for web accessibility. These are specific things you must do during web site development to ensure that a person who is mobility impaired or blind, for example, can use your site. These standards are the basis of the subject matter for this course.

These standards do not require that you dumb down your site. Most sites can be made accessible without changing the visual experience at all.

For example, the standards say you must use alternative text for images and use client side image maps instead of server side maps. These are fairly simple and clear requirements. They are perhaps the most important, the most frequently ignored and they have no impact on the way non-disabled users see or interact with the site.

As we have said, in addition to the web, the Section 508 final rule includes specific standards for software, hardware, and telecommunications equipment. The software requirements are relevant to the web today; AJAX is, in effect, creating software on the web. This course will not cover the Section 508 software accessibility standards.

There have been other efforts establishing guidelines for web accessibility. These include IBM and Microsoft from industry. All of them, including the 508 standards, have drawn on the work of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that has crafted a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The WAI guidelines are grouped by priority; the thirteen priority 1 checkpoints are very similar to those in the final Section 508 rule. In fact, eleven of the sixteen 508 Standards are drawn directly from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, in some cases using language more consistent with regulatory language. Five of the 508 standards do not appear in the WAI checkpoints and require a higher level of access or give more specific requirements. On the other hand, there are four priority 1 WAI checkpoints that were not adopted by the Access Board. The differences between The WAI and Section 508 are discussed in the Access Board document and in my Side-by-side comparison of WCAG and Section 508.

Other Forces for Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which became law in 1990 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The ADA generally requires employers, state and local governments and places of public accommodation to offer reasonable services or tools to insure that people are not discriminated against on the basis of disability.

The ADA was written before the internet was a significant force in our society. Many believe that if the law were written today, the web would be included in the class of activities which should be available to people with disabilities. But it was written in 1990 so the issue of the applicability of the ADA to the web boild down to whether or not the web can be considered a "place of public accommodation." The Department of Justice has written that it considers the web to be just such a place.

On the legal front, the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL in part based on the interpretation of the web as a place of public accommodation and therefore subject to ADA. That suit was settled out of court with AOL agreeing to make its web browsing technology accessible. The New York State Attorney General brought an action against (no bricks and mortar presence) and Ramada Inns (focus on physical accommodations) saying that their web sites should be accessible. This also was settled, the companies agreeing to fix their sites and make them accessible. In 2006 the NFB sued Target corporation claiming that their web site was inaccessible and thus a violation of the ADA. That suit has not been resolved as of this writing. To date, there has not yet been a court ruling supporting or denying the concept that the web, like a store or sidewalk or bus, is a place where discrimination against people with disabilities would not be permitted.

It is easy to argue that it makes sense to make your web site accessible. Almost all web technology can be made accessible with no impact on the visual appearance. And, as we shall see, the process is fairly simple.

Doing so increases your market. The number of people who have disabilities worldwide is significant. In America alone, it is estimated that 54 million people have a disability. You may be missing that market segment by not paying attention to accessibility. Making your web site accessible will improve your odds with search engines, and contribute to making your site accessible on small devices.

Young people in their early 20's with perfect vision and tactile acuity (mouse professionals) are so often the web site designers. But with advances in medicine and science, and with an aging population, more and more people who have disabilities, even minor disabilities, are using the computer and going to the web. If your web presence is not accessible, those millions will go elsewhere.

Making your web site accessible has other effects besides providing a positive experience for people with disabilities. Correctly including accessibility features like alt-text for images and headings for navigation will have a positive impact on search engine rankings. Also, by making your site accessible you will improve the performance of you site on smaller devices.

On With The Show

In the next ten Sections of the course we will discuss the specifics of making your web page accessible. In the final section we will tie it all up with a summary pegged to the sixteen Section 508 Standards.

If you have comments or questions on the content of this course, please contact Jim Thatcher.

This course was originally written for the Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center, funded in support of Section 508 by NIDRR and GSA at Georgia Institute of Technology, Center for Rehabilitation Technology. It has been completely revised.

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