Smooth the bumpy road to 508 compliance

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UsableNet's Lift for Macromedia Dreamweaver Pro Suite works on localized Web files and gives clear descriptions as it goes about making fixes. It's offered in desktop and enterprise versions.

Tools with wizards, customizable rules and details for fixes can help you retrofit Web sites for accessibility

In the year since Section 508 of the Disability Act Amendments took effect, we've seen considerable advances. One is a better toolkit to make agency Web sites accessible for every user.

For this review I tested UsableNet Inc.'s Lift for Macromedia Dreamweaver Pro Suite and Hiawatha Island Software Inc.'s AccVerify and AccRepair. Their customizable rules save time by focusing only on pertinent problems. Why wade through alerts about color contrasts if the job at hand is updating the graphical images? Simply turn off all rules except the relevant one, and save the custom settings for later reuse.

Both suites have wizards that step through repairing tables, images, scripts, links and other objects for 508 accessibility.

Unlabeled images cause the most accessibility problems, so both suites incorporate tools to edit Alt tags and insert descriptions. They also can store items for reuse throughout a site.

The two suites have a similar workflow: First select the appropriate rules for a project, then run the program in verification mode to test the site.

Back comes a report with flagged objects. Run the program again in repair mode and, depending on each identified problem, follow one of the built-in wizards, fix the problem by hand, or dismiss the report as a false positive or irrelevant.

In my tests, both suites could accurately evaluate and repair data tables--something no product could do well just a year ago.

The wizards made it a snap to add captions and summaries, convert table data tags to header tags, assign unique IDs to cells and bind cells to appropriate header cells. Both suites could handle the scope and axis of a complex data table.

UsableNet's Lift for Macromedia Dreamweaver Pro Suite comes in desktop and enterprise versions. The Lift extension for Dreamweaver UltraDev verifies and repairs files on the local drive or on a local network. Because the extension is tightly integrated with Dreamweaver, you can either repair files with native Dreamweaver editing or use Lift's wizards.

In practice, I more often made repairs using Dreamweaver tools. But the wizards were handy for unfamiliar objects such as inline frames and links dynamically produced with JavaScript. Not only did the wizards ease repairs, they educated me as I went.

UsableNet can explain compliance concerns and fixes better than any other vendor in the industry. Each flagged item has an associated "Explain Issue" button that opens a page with a problem description. Another page details a fix, or sometimes more than one. The issue description links to the appropriate Section 508 rule.

UsableNet also integrates much of this information with the Dreamweaver UltraDev reference library.

Countless domains

If you manage several remote sites, choose Lift Online instead. It checks and manages multiple sites via Hypertext Transfer Protocol, with no limit on number of domains. Its detailed reports have the same well-crafted documentation as the desktop version. Verification jobs can be scheduled to run periodically and evaluation settings can be customized.

The detailed page reports and summaries, however, don't give line and column numbers. Nor can you repair the pages in question until they're downloaded. Lift Online will be most effective for small to midsize organizations.

Hiawatha Island Software's AccVerify/AccRepair Professional can flag up to 179 accessibility and usability concerns. It's a good choice for large, widespread Web operations. The software has more features than the UsableNet suite, and most features are helpful, not just bloat.

The HiSoftware suite produces and saves various management statistics, summaries, checklists and comparative histories. If you need to document in detail where you've been and where you stand in compliance, it can help you.

A built-in script editor creates test scripts with specific settings for individual pages or sites. The scripts can be executed manually or scheduled to run via Microsoft Windows.

Demonstrating impressive flexibility, the software emulates a dozen browser types as it crawls through a site's content. AccRepair can detect, follow and fix the JavaScript links critical to dynamically generated content. You can limit the files to be analyzed by size or type, select files from multiple folders, or customize the runs just as you like. But as always, more power means more complexity. Read the documentation first, or you'll miss out on some powerful features.

I also looked at HiSoftware's AccVerify 2002 for Microsoft FrontPage with the AccRepair plug-in. AccVerify evaluates but doesn't fix pages. The FrontPage version has a limited set of the AccVerify/AccRepair features within FrontPage's integrated development environment.

A few minutes with the AccVerify/AccRepair FrontPage application confirmed my suspicion that packages integrated into a preferred authoring environment are easier to learn and use than standalone versions because certain functions are already familiar.

I have my doubts about HiSoftware's standalone products--or any standalone compliance product for that matter--but I know I would want the FrontPage version if I managed a FrontPage site.

If you're responsible for compliance at multiple sites, HiSoftware's AccMonitor can give you real-time intelligence. The basic program has a license for only two domains. Extra domains cost more.

Few agencies so far use streaming multimedia or files with audio tracks because Section 508 requires that captions be synchronized. HiSoftware's HiCaption can create Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange (SAMI) files compatible with Windows Media Player 6.4 or later versions. The newest release of the SAMI captioning language--not reviewed here--also supports Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language and RealText tags for RealNetworks' RealAudio and RealVideo. The results are not always aesthetically pleasing, however. Apple QuickTime support is under development.

Both Lift Online for Macromedia Dreamweaver Pro and AccVerify/AccRepair can get the 508 compliance job done. If you manage one or several sites accessible by LAN, and if Dreamweaver is your primary authoring tool, you will likely be happier with the UsableNet products. Lift Online will suffice for many enterprise operations, although there's no denying that HiSoftware has more robust enterprise management features.

If you manage geographically dispersed sites or have agencywide responsibilities, you'll be better off with the HiSoftware product line. And don't dismiss HiSoftware's desktop applications. AccRepair for FrontPage is more than adequate.

The choices will soon become broader. UsableNet plans to release a version of Lift for Macromedia Inc.'s MX product line as well as a version that will integrate with FrontPage. Visit www.usablenet.com for upgrade information.

Farther down the road, a HiSoftware partner is developing an extension for Macromedia Dreamweaver that integrates both AccVerify and AccRepair. Look for it after the release of Dreamweaver MX.

Compliance answers

Both companies give excellent technical support. I called in anonymously several times and received prompt, competent help without long waits or requests for credit card numbers. Incidentally, all my questions related to compliance issues, not software bugs. The only bug I found was one that prevented pasting content into a field in Lift.

UsableNet and HiSoftware have set a good example that other software vendors should follow. It is, sadly, common practice for companies to charge for support of their buggy software. If they spent more time testing and clearly documenting before release, their support costs would go down, and user satisfaction would go up.

A final suggestion: Download trial versions of HiSoftware's and UsableNet's products. Both companies will demonstrate them for you online by appointment.

Steve Graves, a former GCN reviewer, is chief engineer at Communications Resource Inc. of Potomac, Md.

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