Many tools and techniques can aid in accessibility

'Section 508 compliance can be expensive if you try to add it on the back end,' IRS' T.J. Cannady says.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Federal IT specialists working to make Web sites and other electronic documents accessible to people with disabilities have an increasing range of tools and techniques to help them.

Admittedly, achieving compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 remains a challenge, said Mary Frances Theofanos, a center manager with the National Cancer Institute.

Of particular difficulty is tagging images on Web sites, she said. 'There are problems with missing tags and problems with forms,' she said at the recent Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase 2003 in Washington. Conference organizer PostNewsweek Tech Media of Washington also owns GCN.

Web designers' choices about navigation methods can be critical, said Bob Regan, senior product manager for accessibility at Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco.

'For someone who is blind, the best method of presenting information on a Web page in an accessible manner is plain text,' he said. 'But for people with cognitive issues, text is the least appropriate method of accessibility.'

Regan suggested that designers segment information into limited chunks to accommodate the needs of users who have different types of disabilities.

'If you were to grossly characterize Web designers, you would say that they are visually oriented,' he said.

To make sure a site is accessible to the most users, have users with varying types and degrees of disabilities test the site, Regan said.

The IRS has incorporated Section 508 requirements into its enterprise architecture and lifecycle management policies.

'Section 508 compliance has to be part of an agency's business plan and enterprise architecture,' said T.J. Cannady, the IRS' program manager for the Information Resources Accessibility Program.

His group provides technical support to the IRS, of which 10.7 percent of employees have disabilities.

IT planners are trying to build compliance into systems from the start to minimize cost. 'Section 508 compliance can be expensive if you try to add it on the back end,' Cannady said. 'You have to plan for it from the beginning.'

The idea is comparable to the agency's view on the application of the Tax Code, he said. 'I am reminded of the IRS mission statement of applying the tax laws with integrity and fairness to everyone.' Agencies also must consider the cultural issues of accommodation.

When it comes to products for deaf or hard-of-hearing users, sometimes technology alone won't cut it. That's because translating for the deaf involves subtle cultural issues that no technology can fully overcome.

For instance, Hewlett-Packard Co. officials demonstrated a PC application that accepts live voice input, converts it to on-screen text, then converts the text to video images of sign language.
The iCommunicator software draws on a library of thousands of short clips of a professional sign linguist, said Gail Rosenberg, HP's product manager for iCommunicator.

Because it links text to the video clips, the signing produced is in word-for-word order, not idiomatic English. And several deaf observers noted that it produced an inordinate amount of finger spelling, letter-by-letter spelling of words by the signer.

The video output is mechanical and disconcertingly unlike American Sign Language.
Rosenberg, who is also a certified audiologist, said that as more whole signed words are added to the library, the amount of the finger-spelling would decrease.

Signing significance

More revealing was a question from a deaf observer. Fredrick Waldorf, a retired FBI employee, asked whether the signer in the video clips was deaf or hearing. Rosenberg said she was hearing and has a deaf son.

Asked afterward about the significance of this, Waldorf said skilled signers'often also deaf'include inflection and emotion through their faces and hand movements.

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