Setting sites on Section 508

Software tools'and a little forethought'can make sure your Web pages work for every user

Ever since the first President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, agencies and private businesses have been under increasing pressure and progressively tighter regulations to make all goods, employment and services available to the disabled.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 reinforces and ex-pands ADA's requirements. It requires most federal offices to buy accessible IT products, with minor exceptions for military, mostly combat-related purchases.

This guide focuses on Web development and publishing tools that let agencies develop accessible applications and make documents available to users with visual impairments. The accompanying chart also includes some end-user tools.

A logical place to start is with Microsoft Corp., which has the most widely used computing platform in government. The company's products include a lot of accessibility tools, and even developer tools, that work with its newer operating systems.

There is a decent screen magnifier in Windows XP, which also includes a text-to-speech tool called Narrator. It is pretty limited and is only available in English, but it provides a useful tool in Notepad, Wordpad, Control Panel and Internet Explorer, as well as the Windows desktop and Windows setup.

An easy way to start Narrator is to open the Utility Manager by pressing the Windows logo key and the U key, which lets you start and stop both the magnifier and the text-to-speech tool.
Internet Explorer itself provides a multitude of means to tweak the way a Web page will appear on the monitor.

The ability to customize Explorer and to provide text-to-speech output can, for those with minor impairments, eliminate the many costs involved with installing and maintaining third-party tools.
Often the biggest barriers to accessibility are created unintentionally by co-workers or even by management policies specifying that something should always be done a certain way. A policy could be created in good faith to engender a consistent workplace environment without consideration of how it affects disabled workers.

Probably half the commercial Web sites I visit use low-contrast background and text combinations simply because someone decided they looked interesting or fancy, but they are harder to read.

That's no longer true of most federal sites. But something even more ubiquitous than Web pages is the simple printed or electronically ex- changed and displayed document.

In the old days, documents were limited to monochrome text with simple graphs and probably one or two fonts. Today, even a novice Microsoft Office user can generate documents with dozens of font sizes and types, multiple colors and images, all of which can be very difficult for visually impaired workers to deal with, especially if they use screen readers or document scanners and readers.

Even worse, while Novell WordPerfect'once fairly common in government'had a useful 'reveal codes' command that made it easy to edit such formatting faux pas, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Office, the default document generators in most government offices today, lack any easy way to see or modify formatting codes.

Fortunately, this most common cause of problems also has a simple and inexpensive fix: Levit & James' CrossEyes add-in for Word.

CrossEyes not only displays all Word formatting codes, it provides an easy way to edit them directly at the code level.

All CrossEyes software tools are accessible from the keyboard, compatible with popular screen readers, support Microsoft's Active Accessibility Protocol and support all major high-contrast text display options.

As the company points out, even apparently simple Word documents can be extremely complex, with five ways to indent paragraphs and four more ways just to create bold text.

Finally, don't overlook the role of color in your applications. Some disabilities are obvious and readily accomodated. But many cognitive or even physical disabilities are invisible, and the problems encountered daily by people with disabilities such as color-blindness are often ignored.

It is estimated that 8 percent to 10 percent of adult males and nearly 1 percent of adult females have a form of color blindness.

Obviously, you must take that into consideration when dealing with the general public. But you need to keep it in mind for government employees too'except in narrow employment areas such as some military specialties where such disabilities are automatically screened out. In an office with 100 people, certain color schemes could make the words on documents or Web pages invisible to nine or 10 of them.

The major kinds of color blindness include:
  • deuteranope, a form of red/green color deficit

  • protanope, another form of red/green color deficit

  • tritanope, a very rare blue/yellow deficit.

To check your images or Web site for accessibility, try the free online service provided at www.vischeck.com/vischeck.

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