Beyond section 508

Software tools can make computers more accessible to users with disabilities'and those without

Ask anybody: Computers can be a pain to use. Yet they're even worse for some people than for others. Because computers rely primarily on monitors or printers for their output'both visually oriented'any user with a visual impairment is at an immediate disadvantage. And because computers depend on keyboards and mice for input and control'both requiring manual dexterity'users with motor skill deficiencies also face difficulties. It's a problem affecting an estimated 54 million people with disabilities, including the 8.5 million who want to work but remain unemployed. But it's also a problem for any organization that uses computers, especially the federal government.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to persons with disabilities. This has two major implications: Government employees must be able to use agency computers, and the general public must be able to use government Web sites.

Common sense

While this is the law, it's also common sense. Equal access to information and technology is fair. Furthermore, if the federal government wants to attract the best employees, it must accommodate those who may have disabilities. 'Current government employees are also aging, which affects their visual and motor skills in general,' said Laura Ruby, program manager for regulatory and industry affairs with Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group. Merely retaining existing employees, therefore, requires agencies to address issues of computer accessibility.

The disabilities most directly affecting computer use are motor disabilities (especially involving fingers, hands and arms) and sensory disabilities (primarily visual). However, every case is individual, and there are infinite variations and gradations of abilities. Still, most computer-related disabilities fall into these two categories, which simplifies the accessibility situation.

Fortunately, computers are flexible enough to help solve the problems they create. One source of solutions is the operating system. Many operating systems, including Windows and Mac OS, include accessibility options. Users can control such features as:
  • Sticky keys that allow you to enter multiple-key combinations (like Ctrl-S) one key at a time
  • Repeat rate, which can be reduced so that slow key-presses produce only a single character

  • Filtered keys that can ignore repeated keystrokes

  • Tone keys, which sound a tone when certain keys are pressed

  • Visual warnings, which can accompany sound effects

  • High contrast, making screen items easier to distinguish

  • Keyboard shortcuts, which can replace the use of the mouse for input and control.

These features may be all the assistance some users need.

But another source of accessibility solutions is an application itself. The idea is that people with disabilities should be able to use the same products as everyone else. Again, many modern commercial applications, including the major office applications, have accessibility features the user can select and configure. These include:
  • Changing the size or magnification of parts of the screen

  • Customizing toolbars, buttons and menus

  • Keyboard shortcuts

  • Automated data entry.

The problem is that accessibility features aren't always easy to identify. 'One challenge is how to make accessible technology in applications more easily discoverable,' Ruby said.

It's also important that agencies have the tools to create accessibility features for their own applications based on unique user needs. For in-house programs, code development may be required in order to change an application to add the desired flexibility. 'Companies like Microsoft Corp. are working on development tools to simplify accessibility features for developers,' Ruby added.

Third-party tools

In an ideal world'the one in which government agencies prefer to buy commercial off-the-shelf solutions to ease procurement'third-party software may make accessibility development tools unnecessary for commercial applications. A number of third-party products are available for addressing Section 508 issues. These accessibility tools fall into two main categories. Those addressing motor disabilities include voice input for keyboard, mouse and Web browser control. Those designed to deal with sensory issues also include voice control, plus audible signaling, Braille support, screen enhancement (magnifiers and readers), speech synthesis and optical character recognition (including Braille recognition).

Of course, some products might include several of these features combined into one solution. Yet all these types of tools have one thing in common: They act as an interface between the user and the target computer application.

Selecting assistive software involves some special considerations. A primary factor is how the solution works with the target application and the operating system. For example, if you're trying to select a product that supports voice input of data, there is a big difference between one oriented toward input into documents and one oriented toward input into spreadsheets. Similarly, a screen magnification program might work well with some applications but produce bizarre screen output with others.

'Users typically employ multiple solutions simultaneously,' Ruby said. 'They should be able to interact with each other properly.'

It is also important that the program be controllable by the user, for two reasons. First, the user should be able to make any adjustments necessary'it's their program, after all. In addition, you don't want these programs to require a lot of attention from technical support. In practice, an application might need some initial configuration, but it should never require modification after setup.

However, the most important requirement is that the application satisfy the user. As mentioned above, there can be enormous variation, even between two users in the same disability category. For example, magnification software may allow many users with low vision to see screen text and graphics more clearly by adjusting the screen size, color, and contrast. But others may find no help from this solution and may instead require a screen reader or Braille output. Bottom line: The solution must meet the needs of the user and grant them the accessibility they need to do their work. Keep in mind that these workers may be using the app for hours every day. It must be a good fit.

Focusing on a bigger picture

All accessibility software has a single goal: making computers easier to use. But this is important for all users, not just those with disabilities. 'The emphasis shouldn't be on labels like disability or impairment, but on function,' Ruby said. Many of the products available would benefit a variety of users.

For example, there are products that predict, based on the first few letters, what word the user is trying to type, and the user can simply select the prediction with a keystroke. This tool would be useful for many users, producing faster, more accurate input. According to Ruby, a recent study discovered 57 percent of American computer users could benefit from accessible technology.

The effort to make computers easier to use should be broad and continual, and not limited to those with identified disabilities. Ultimately, this kind of focus would benefit all users. Assistive technologies benefit a broader audience, resulting in a better return on investment. And as most accessibility solutions rely on the computer's own power to improve control, as computer power increases, the programs should improve correspondingly.

Industry experts say Section 508 has had a predictable effect'increasing purchases of assistive technology tools. It's estimated that about 57 million computer users already use some accessible technology and that 70 million will be doing so by 2010. 'The market has always been there,' said Ruby. 'However, Section 508 has increased awareness now.'

This will lead to greater competition in the market. Expect to see consolidation among providers, while others may go out of business. Surviving products will combine feature sets, leading to more capable solutions.

At the same time, many accessibility features will find their way into mainstream applications. 'We are working to establish worldwide standards for accessibility for all types of applications,' Ruby said. This will blur the distinction between applications and assistive technology. Who knows? Someday, maybe, computers will no longer be a pain for anybody to use.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass. E-mail him at dejesus@compuserve.com.

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