These tools can help agencies comply with Section 508 rules

As agencies strive to meet Section 508 requirements, several new or emerging products could help them get there. In January, NASA enlisted the Defense Department's Computer and Electronic Accommodations Program to provide assistive technology to the space agency's disabled employees.

In February, President Bush signed a memo setting up an interagency working group on mobility devices at the Education Department. And the Transportation Security Administration last month announced the first-ever training seminars in technology for screening passengers with disabilities.

Meanwhile, products continue to evolve for making agency IT systems comply with Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act amendments.

'We're getting to where we have to start auditing compliance,' said Emma Kolstad Antunes, a Web manager for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

'We've managed to get to the people who care. Now it's time to start auditing people who don't care. It's not just the law, it's a good thing. If we get stragglers, we have to give them carrots, not sticks.'

Antunes has spent a month beta-testing the Lift Machine for Section 508 compliance of Web systems. 'I haven't seen a tool that rivals it yet,' she said. It 'looks very promising.'
However, she added, 'I don't think it's there yet.' Lift Machine, server software from UsableNet Inc. of New York, seemed to filter too tightly, she said, and raised red flags about routine content.

Being strict is good, Antunes said, 'but I think there needs to be a way to say, this is not a problem, and we can ignore it.'

In a free beta test of the product that would have cost them roughly $40,000, Antunes said the software disapproved key words on Goddard's 1.2 million Web pages spread across 700 Web servers. It flagged an instruction for screen readers to skip a long list of menu options and head straight for the content, because of the instruction's location. But the software also caught broken links and other minor mistakes.

Antunes said UsableNet has been open to fine-tuning its product to the agency's needs. 'I expect to want to buy it next year' when its next version'and her funding'surfaces, she said. 'Lift is a big step in the right direction. But I'll go with Version 1.5 or 2.0.'

Lift Machine is undergoing trials at Goddard, the Environmental Protection Agency and Library of Congress, said Jason Taylor, the company's director of product management. A UsableNet hosted service is now available, priced from $2,000 to $12,000 annually. A full purchase ranges from $6,000 to $40,000 annually, depending on the number of users.

Another new Section 508 compliance product is voice-reader software from Xerox Corp. that lets visually disabled users punch in requests to the company's 500-series copiers from a PC connected via Universal Serial Bus.

The $495 Xerox software takes blind users through each step of one- or two-sided collating, copying, stapling and sorting.

'It's simple, it's easy to use,' said Michael Gaines, who works in the Customs and Border Protection Bureau's copier management division. 'Usually, in the copier world, that's exactly what we want.'

Other federal officials at Xerox's March demonstration were wary of the need to put the PC so close to the copier. 'It would be nice to have [the PC] at the desk,' said Michael Robinson, a program analyst for the Transportation Department. 'There should not be only one machine that can do this.'

(Revised 9:24 a.m. June 19, 2003)

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