Barrett illuminates 508 gains

Education's Don Barrett says he's thrilled that accessibility has a law standing behind it. 'What it means is that because there's a real law ... people are much quicker to fix things and make them accessible.'

(GCN Photo by Olivier Douliery)

Don Barrett, a 24-year veteran at the Education Department in Washington, remembers what assistive technology was like before the Digital Age.

Barrett, who is blind, used to bang on a braille typewriter and a standard typewriter.

He also had a reader. No, not some primeval precursor to today's screen reader software but a real, live person whose full-time job was to sit and read to the visually impaired.

'If you were blind back in those days, you could not get by without a reader because all the phone messages, all the letters, all the memos'any paper communications that came to you'were in ink and paper,' said Barrett, a member of the department's Assistive Technology Program team. 'If you didn't have a reader you were dead in the water.'

That was in the late 1970s, in what seems in retrospect like the technological Stone Age.
But even as recently as the 1980s, devices for the disabled were still primitive'and staggeringly expensive.

'In 1983 a little braille terminal came out,' Barrett recalled. 'You could hook it to a printer and do very rudimentary word processing. It had a braille display, used a cassette tape for memory and cost $7,000.'

Since then, sea changes have occurred in assistive technologies, resulting in a broadening stream of products to help people with functional limitations.

Listen to a site

These days, for instance, when Barrett scrolls through the Education Department's Web site, the synthesized voice of screen reader software verbalizes headings, text and images. It can translate almost everything that's properly tagged into speech.

And for Barrett, the accessibility future is even brighter, thanks in part to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation

Act Amendments of 1998, which took effect a year ago.

For one thing, Section 508 created a legal impetus for making the government's electronic information and IT systems accessible to disabled users.

'I can't tell you how thrilled I am to know that any frustration I might have with IT is a potential [legal] complaint,' he said. 'What it means is that because there's a real law and a real standard that implements that law, people are much quicker to fix things and make them accessible.'

Proof positive is the department's Web travel management system from Gelco Information Network Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., which went live in April.

'The department uses it to handle all of our travel needs,' Barrett said. 'But it had some accessibility problems when we first tested it.' The department's Chief Financial Office made it clear to Gelco officials that the system would have to meet 508 standards if it were going to be considered, Barrett said.

The Gelco 'development team jumped on the bandwagon, made it very 508-compliant, and now it's easily used by all of us,' he said. 'That kind of thing is great.'

Another big difference, for Barrett, is the formidable presence of the Section 508 standards promulgated by the federal Access Board two years ago.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the Education Department drafted its own set of accessible-software requirements and built them into contracts. Until then, many vendors didn't have a clue about accessibility, Barrett said.

'We kept telling vendors we wanted our software to be accessible,' he said. 'And they would say, 'Fine. What do you mean?' '

Using input from vendors experienced in developing assistive technology, such as IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., and advocates for the disabled and research centers, department officials wrote their own standards.

'The standards were really the forerunner of part of the Section 508 requirements,' Barrett said. 'They were used in the initial piece of the 508 software set of standards. In that sense we were one of the first agencies to put our requirements in our contracts.'

Barrett, who began his government career in 1978 with the old Health, Education and Welfare Department's Office for Handicapped Individuals, spends much of his time testing software for accessibility.

Before joining the department's Assistive Technology Program in 1998, he worked on the staff of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services as an information specialist. Over time, he became the office's de facto expert on technology for the blind.

With his accumulated technical expertise, Barrett's move four years ago to the department's Assistive Technology Program was a natural one.

The Assistive Technology Program was launched about seven years ago and has grown to a staff of 10, including in-house employees and contractors.

Obstacles remain

Despite the beehive of vendor response and innovation that 508 has stirred during the past year, some obstacles remain in providing Web accessibility for blind individuals, especially in the area of graphics, Barrett said. For example, translating complicated tables into speech remains a problem.

'I've had to pass on some tables that were complicated,' Barrett said. 'They were coded correctly but the screen reader couldn't read them. That's where assistive technology hasn't caught up with what the standard requires.'

The best solution for now is to write code that meets Access Board standards, he said.

'The sanity is the standard,' he said. 'If you code to the standard, you know that the product will be usable. You can then go back to your assistive technology vendors and say, 'We've got 508-compliant code. Make it work with your product.' '

Barrett also noted that some images pose major accessibility snags'translating the path of a tornado into speech on a National Weather Service page, for instance.

'There are some things that are just going to be impossible to make fully accessible,' he said. 'You might be able to provide a description of a tornado heading east at such and such a speed, but actually recreating that pattern in verbal form'I don't think so.'

Hardware such as printers, copiers and fax machines pose a far bigger problem than Web pages, Barrett said.

'It's a lot easier to recode HTML than it is to retool a manufacturing plant for a different hardware layout,' he said.

A similar test is posed by personal digital assistants and other connected handheld devices, he said.

What has 508 meant to Barrett personally?

He described a recent experience with the department's new online travel management system. Instead of having to find someone to sit with him and do the paperwork, he simply got online, filled out the form and was reimbursed.

'It was an exhilarating and sobering experience to feel that level of independence,' he said. 'We're all dependent on each other in some way, but this culture likes to push a high level of independence, sometimes to the point of being silly. But the level of independence you get when you work with accessible applications is just phenomenal.'

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