Guidelines for Section 508 expected by January

Guidelines for Section 508 expected by January

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Guidelines to help agencies comply with the Section 508 directive that information technology be accessible to disabled users will likely be ready by January.

After the federal Access Board issues the guidelines, agencies will then have six months before the rules take effect, said Doug Wakefield, an accessibility specialist with the board.

The Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 require agencies to make all IT accessible to disabled users [GCN, April 17, Page 1]. The board issued a draft version of the rules in April.

Originally, the amendments required that agencies comply with the new rules by Aug. 7. Congress, however, approved a reprieve, giving agencies until six months after the board had issued the final guidance.

Attorney General Janet Reno says legal mandates are only one reason for agencies to embrace Section 508 rules.

But Wakefield said agencies need not wait for the final guidance to begin assuring that their Web sites and other systems are accessible. Agencies essentially must address two issues.

'The generic standards are whether the technology is usable to those without vision and whether it is available to those without hearing,' Wakefield said. Based on that alone, agencies can jump-start their efforts, he said.

In designing the compliance guidelines, the Access Board decided standards for accessibility needed to take generic or general technology into consideration if the rules are to be successful, he said.

The Access Board is interested in sharpening the fuzzy perception of exactly how much accessibility is enough, Wakefield said.

'When you talk about access to software programs, one of the main questions is: How much do we expect on the part of the user?' Wakefield, who is blind, said last week at a Section 508 conference held at General Services Administration headquarters. 'On what level do you expect the user to perform?'

The question, he said, might even be more basic: Is the program or Web site accessible and usable? 'Accessibility may be in the eye of the beholder,' he said. 'It is very seldom that it is black and white.'

NIST involved

As the board develops the final guidance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on establishing metrics to take the shades of gray out of the equation.

Both design and performance must be taken into consideration when gauging accessibility of IT, said Sharon Laskowski, who manages NIST's visualization and usability group. It is possible to quantify what is and isn't acceptable, she said.

Design items, such as text tags on images for Web pages, and a disabled user's ability to complete a task efficiently and with satisfaction could help determine accessibility levels, she said.

Gray areas could be removed by studying screen flicker specifications and color contrasts, and looking at the consistency of image descriptions, Laskowski said. A disabled user's ability to complete a task in a given time with a set number of errors could also be a factor, she said.

Performance-based user testing would promote design of a common industry format for accessibility, she said.

Specifications should be created for disability ranges with a product and its possible use with other software and technical devices, she said.

Without standards, neither agencies nor vendors know how to make certain a product is accessible, Wakefield said.

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