Tools to unlock Section 508

HiSoftware's AccRepair with a GSA price of $840, offers easy access to reports.

UsableNet's Lift for Microsoft FrontPage lets you customize tests for images, Section 508 or W3C, or create guidelines. Its GSA price is $266 per year.

Compliance apps can spot and often remove barriers, but they can't do all the work

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 got serious last year, with a concerted push for agencies to make all information systems accessible to the disabled.

It has largely meant changing Web sites so that, for example, purely visual elements can be represented as text, then processed by screen-reader technology and read to the visually impaired.

It means large-print captions of video and audio for the hearing impaired, or fewer mouse clicks for those with limited mobility. It means anticipating how a disabled person, or the assistive technology they use, will move down, across and through busy pages.

And it means a lot of work for agency Web developers.

They can get help from Section 508 compliance tools, specialized programs that automatically detect and, in many cases, repair Section 508 violations.

Near-equal parts search engine, expert system and legal document, these programs cannot, by their vendors' own admission, do the entire job. Much of Section 508 is open to interpretation, and no pattern-recognition software has perfect accuracy. 'Maybe 50 percent to 60 percent of accessibility issues can be caught with technology,' said Randy Souza, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. 'At the end of the day, you're going to need human intelligence in place.'

The leading products support not only Section 508 requirements but the related and generally stricter Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C's rules are catching on with other national governments and with organizations that want to go the extra mile for accessibility.

The compliance tools let you pick either test, and experts say the differences are manageable. They advise meeting Section 508 first, then working toward WCAG. 'If you don't do anything beyond 508, you're still leaving up barriers that might make it difficult for people to access your site,' said Judy Brewer of the W3C's Accessibility Initiative.

Section 508 compliance tools depend heavily on the willingness of certain Web applications'particularly those that provide dynamic content, such as Active Server Pages and JavaScript'to expose what they're doing. The relationship has historically been enough of a problem to cause the tools to balk when encountering dynamic content.

Vendors and analysts say the situation is improving with the emergence of standards such as Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL). More important, makers of the major content-creation tools'notably Adobe Systems Inc., Macromedia Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'increasingly are adding accessibility hooks to their software. They also work closely with compliance tool vendors; some sell their plug-ins and are beginning to build Section 508 tools into their products.

Nearly missing from the current crop is help for the non-Web side of the Section 508 mandate. Crunchy Technology Inc.'s new WinScreamer does Windows, but it is geared to Windows software developers or agencies that develop applications in-house.

The software comes in four main flavors. The most capable standalone desktop tools, such as Crunchy's PageScreamer and SSB Technologies Inc.'s InFocus, are mainly for testing pages that are in development or already posted to sites. They bring pages into their own proprietary environments, make some changes automatically, or let you handle the remainder in built-in HTML editors.

An inside job

Several vendors offer cheaper desktop applications that test but do not repair. In the accompanying chart, they're the ones with 'repair' missing from the column identifying their purpose. In the past year or so, most vendors have begun offering cheaper plug-in versions that work inside popular content-creation programs such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage.

Several vendors have free online testing services that are little more than marketing tools, letting you test a single page or a handful of pages; reports are then viewable online or, occasionally, e-mailed. The best-known is Bobby, recently acquired by Watchfire Corp., which also offers a more capable but lower-priced desktop version.

Some vendors, such as UsableNet Inc., sell annual licenses to online services that can handle dynamic pages and multiple Web sites. And an emerging category of server-based products, such as Crunchy's PageScreamer Central, are for centrally administering compliance tests. Some of these enterprise products, such as HiSoftware's AccMonitor Server with AccRepair, add the repair function.

Though in some ways immature, these tools can clearly improve compliance rates and save developers' time and sanity at a reasonable cost.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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