Space Command salutes Section 508

At Air Force Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., there's an office for OPTN'Air Force lingo for 'operationalizing and professionalizing the network.' But the IT staff got no special Web training until last summer.

'It was retired Tech Sgt. Will Hughes who really brought Section 508 to our attention,' said OPTN chief Mike Wokurka. 'Now all our general training is tied to 508,' whose third anniversary is today.

Wokurka came up with $92,000 for a contractor to design a webmaster curriculum to make the command's sites accessible, as required by Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments.

Training needed

'Some of our sites are more compliant, some are less,' Wokurka said, 'so we felt there was a need for 508 training. It took the first year to develop the curriculum and touch all nine of the bases in the command.'

Wokurka said he's hoping to get more funding for a second year, 'so we can take up Dreamweaver' from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco and more technical tools such as advanced cascading style sheets and interactive databases. He also hopes to develop a distance-learning curriculum for the Space Command.

Contractor Jacqueline Hoover, president of On Target Enterprises Inc. of Colorado Springs, set up training through the company's Technical Education College there.

'They have the first completely hands-on course where students build an Air Force Web site that's 508-compliant,' Hoover said.

The weeklong course emphasizes site accessibility and military standards and policies.

The Space Command and the technical college first looked at existing 508 training resources. They found that most government-sponsored 508 training is geared to seasoned webmasters.

'Most tutorials assume you already know how to use an Alt tag or title attribute,' Hoover said.

For new or intermediate webmasters, that would mean first learning 'the wrong, non-508 authoring techniques and then incorporating the changes necessary to make the page accessible,' Hoover said. '508 seems to be open to a great deal of interpretation in the many Web- and book-based tutorials. There seem to be as many opinions on how to incorporate 508 as there are 508 tutorials.'

The curriculum research turned up a September 2003 study by Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy, which said fewer than half of federal sites meet World Wide Web Consortium standards for accessibility and fewer than a fourth meet the federal 508 requirements.

The study named several government sites that claimed compliance but, because of changes made after the fact, did not comply when tested with a tool such as Bobby from Watchfire Corp. of Waltham, Mass.

To read the Taubman Center report, go to www.gcn.com and enter 240 in the GCN.com/box.

The Space Command's contractor team also learned on their own that many of the contractors who build pages for the Defense Department are unaware that their contracts have 508 clauses.

'Much of the awareness problem was not just how to incorporate 508 guidelines, but whether and where a government webmaster has to incorporate them,' Hoover said.

Misconception

'Many believed that the standards are only for public pages. That is simply not true,' she said. 'Federal employees with disabilities need to access the pages from their intranets,' in addition to official Microsoft PowerPoint and Word and Adobe Portable Document Format documents. According to 508, those must be compliant, too.

While the curriculum was under development, the Space Command also had to complete its biennial 508 survey for Congress and the president. The survey asked about coding techniques such as skip links, Alt tags and so on, plus what tools were used to verify compliance.

The Space Command decided that its students should learn the latest 508 coding techniques as well as how to verify that pages have correct syntax and follow 508 guidelines.

The HTML syntax must be verified first because adaptive devices such as screen readers rely on correct HTML and cascading style sheet code to function properly, Hoover
said. Students check their HTML at validator.w3.org and their CSS code at jigsaw.

w3.org/css-validator. The free code validators, sponsored by the W3 Consortium, let pages be uploaded from behind firewalls.

Then, to check 508 compliance, the students use the Wave 508 tool from Pennsylvania's Initiative on Assistive Technology, at wave.webaim.org.
The course eventually developed for the Space Command relies on intensive, hands-on practice. Students have to build two military Web sites from the ground up, the first site using the Extensible HTML programming language with CSS.

The second site has to be built with the Microsoft FrontPage what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor, also incorporating CSS to separate page content from its display properties.

That lets sight-impaired users override the author's style sheets with custom settings, adjusting the font sizes or colors as needed.

Surrender

'We had a heck of a time convincing the seasoned webmasters to give up their tables and frames,' Hoover said. 'But when they saw they could create a cascading style sheet with the appearance of a table or frame, with less code and far more accessibility, they got excited.'

The students'about 200 of them so far'spend a week learning 508 features such as alternative text for images, skip-links to bypass repeat navigation and coding of tables for screen-reader software.

'Every time a new XHTML tag is introduced, the students learn how to incorporate accessibility immediately,' Hoover said. She considers that better than trying to retrofit an existing, noncompliant page. Students also learn how to make multimedia, Java and JavaScript technologies accessible.

If a particular Space Command office does not use a specific Web technology, it can delete that from the curriculum.

Currently, students are enrolled from these Air Force bases: Buckley in Aurora, Colo.; Peterson, Schriever and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs; F.E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyo.; Malmstrom in Great Falls, Mont.; Minot in Minot, N.D.; Patrick in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; and Vandenberg in Lompoc, Calif.

'Some of the bases send their students to Peterson, and somnetimes we go to them,' Wokurka said.

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