Kennedy Web site ahead of 508 curve

'We started looking for ways to keep compliance in mind as we built the site from the ground up.'

'Ngozi Pole

Laurie DeWitt

Before each new session of Congress, the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) redesigns his Web site using the latest technology. In each successive revamp, Kennedy's Internet presence has had more elaborate graphics as well as more information and interactive applications.

But when Ngozi Pole, Kennedy's systems administrator, sat down to put together the site for the 108th Congress, he found the fancy graphics caused an unexpected problem: the site did not meet Section 508 accessibility standards for use by disabled persons.

'The old site was rated by the online accessibility testing tools in the 50s out of 100,' Pole said. 'Our navigation was embedded in Flash [from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco] and there was no way a text reader could figure out what was on the navigation bar. Our pages were not tabable, and we didn't use alt tags.'

Congress does not have to abide by Section 508'the standards apply to the executive branch'but Pole recognized the importance of communicating with Kennedy's disabled constituents.

'When we started planning the Web site, meeting the Section 508 standards became the No. 1 thing we wanted to shoot for,' he said.

Few in Congress have 508-compliant sites, said Bill Thompson, executive director of the Office of Compliance, an independent legislative branch agency that enforces 11 employment and safety laws in Congress.

'Both houses are making progress, and we continue to recommend that Congress bring the legislative branch into formal compliance by adding it to the Congressional Accountability Act, but it is slow going,' Thompson said.

Pole said he believes Kennedy's site will be one of the first in the Senate to be fully 508-compliant.

Editing tools

To get there, he tackled the complexities of the broad standards by using GoLive 6, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor from Adobe Systems Inc.

'We started looking for ways to keep compliance in mind as we rebuilt the site from the ground up,' Pole said. 'GoLive tools alert you when something you put on the site is inaccessible.'

GoLive compares the site against a list of 16 basic compatibility guidelines and modifies the text or images to meet those standards, said Lynn Grillo, an application specialist for Adobe.

'If an image needs an alt tag, GoLive automatically writes it,' she said. 'The software gives you several different ways to work, whether in the layout editor, source editor or both at once, which makes it easy to tag attributes.' GoLive also provides site reports on how specific pages meet the 508 standards, Grillo said.

Pole said the hardest part of fixing Kennedy's site was bringing the Flash navigation tool into compliance. He said they finally created a non-Flash navigation tool, which is the better low-bandwidth choice.

GoLive also helped Pole cut down on the time it takes to check for coding errors. 'It is easy to monitor pages as they are created,' he said. 'We also look for errors in different levels of HTML and different browser versions.'

To ensure the site stays compliant, Pole set up templates for Kennedy staff members. GoLive constructs the templates so staff members only have to cut and paste new text into a 508-compliant page to update their portion of the site without having to change coding.

The site, which was relaunched in January, is not fully compliant yet, but Pole said it is close.

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