Section 508 becomes this year's Y2K

Section 508 becomes this year's Y2K

BY DIPKA BHAMBHANI | GCN STAFF

Agencies' last-minute push to comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements by June 21 is producing a blitz of vendor initiatives and product modifications.

Hardware makers such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, last month launched corporate accessibility units. Jocelyn Lai, HP's program manager for accessibility, said her group will coordinate the efforts of all HP product divisions, each of which must use different techniques for accessibility.

Printers need front-panel power switches and paper trays that pull out and reinstall easily. PCs must be equipped with standard interfaces for assistive products.

Web sites face the same deadline. Human Factors International Inc. of Fairfield, Iowa, last month announced a contract award from the Library of Congress to make the library's site comply with Section 508.

'We redesigned their intranet, and we will be doing the public site next,' said Human Factors' Taruna Thapliyal. The contract is worth up to $600,000 if the library exercises all options.

Ten percent of all Human Factors' government contracts over the past year have included modifications to satisfy Section 508, Thapliyal said. The company expects to double its percentage of federal business this year.

Macromedia of San Francisco, a developer of Web authoring software, also expects to double its nearly 20 percent of revenue from government. The company merged last month with Allaire Corp. of Newton, Mass.

Allaire's ColdFusion software combined with Macromedia's Flash and Dreamweaver packages can produce accessible sites faster, said Pat Brogan, Macromedia's vice president of education and learning. Macromedia's newest accessibility products include Flash Player animation software for the Microsoft Windows Pocket PC platform.

Macromedia also has teamed with UsableNet Inc., a San Francisco Web developer, to incorporate a Dreamweaver extension into UsableNet's Lift Online application, which checks each page of a site for 508 compliance.

Human Factors' government sales executive, Ed Frease, said agencies 'started their Web sites five or six or seven years ago, and they've become unwieldy. You can continue to put patches on, or you can go back.'

Costly compliance

He said the company has rebuilt sites such as Cancer.net for the National Institutes of Health, as well as pages for the Census Bureau, Energy Department, IRS and Social Security Administration. Each agency is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve a basic level of Section 508 compliance, he said.

Human Factors also built the front end for the Congressional Research Service's site, Frease said. Tata International Ltd. in India developed the back-end technology under a contract worth about $300,000.

'That was the most basic level,' said Terrence de Giere, technical support and accessibility expert for Human Factors. 'We had to negotiate with [the research service] to bring it down to their budget. We find that's the case with a lot of government clients.'

There are three tiers of compliance. By the June deadline, agencies have to comply with the basic level, which lets Web visitors navigate with more than a single sense.


Woody Hall
For example, a site that has only audio output would not be accessible to people with hearing impairments, and one that requires mouse actions would be unusable by those with visual or dexterity impairments. Section 508 focuses on overall accessibility of electronic and information technology systems, not on providing accommodations at individual desks.

'There are a lot of unanswered questions about what 508 means,' said Steve Walter, senior manager for Compulink Management Center Inc. of Torrance, Calif., vendor of LaserFiche document imaging software. About 10 percent of its revenues come from federal agencies, and about 50 percent from state and local jurisdictions.

Even with an accessible system, Walter said, a disabled user might still need specific additional software or peripheral devices. For example, a blind user would require add-on software to read word processing text aloud. If the word processor could not be made compatible with a screen-reading program, it would not meet Section 508's specifications.

The higher accessibility levels include advanced functions such as touch-screen and mouse control by eye movements.

De Giere said advancing beyond the basic stage of compliance would be a budget challenge for some agencies. Agencies 'often have a specific mandate from Congress on how to spend their funding,' he said.

Right now, he said, much of the technology needed for full accessibility either doesn't exist or is too expensive for the government.

'We don't have very good software tools yet, and the ones that appear are expensive,' de Giere said. And software add-ons for existing systems don't always work. 'They have 300 different types of networking in the government,' he said. Differing browser displays and style sheets add complications.

Agencies scrambling

Though agencies are required only to meet the basic accessibility requirement by the June deadline, they are still scrambling, de Giere said. He expects accessibility to continue to improve as technology evolves.

The number of disabled federal civilian workers has held steady over the past 10 years. A 1998 study by the Office of Personnel Management found 7.2 million disabled government workers. About 20 percent have a severe disability such as blindness or total deafness.

'Section 508 has a long history in the department,' said Craig Luigart, the Education Department's chief information officer, adding that 'the other issues'work force and outsourcing'could not be
diminished.'

'With an aging work force and people retiring, we have to deal with the question, 'Where do we hire the new talent, or do we outsource?' ' Luigart said. 'The more we try and create an effective government, the more the issues become interrelated.'

Treasury Department CIO James Flyzik said it was not possible to think of one concern without dealing with the other two. 'At Treasury, we are laying equal importance on all three,' he said.

Lawsuits loom

Customs Service CIO S.W. 'Woody' Hall said that although the nature of the work at his agency prevents many users with disabilities from taking jobs there, Section 508 is as crucial an issue there as the work force shortage and outsourcing.

The urgency of 508 compliance is also fueled by potential lawsuits from disabled users.

If an agency system is not compliant by the deadline, a disabled user can file a complaint with the Access Board, a federal unit that can grant injunctive relief. The user can also take civil action against an agency.

'Section 508 is like the new Y2K,' one vendor said. 'It means that not just the government has to worry about 508, but the vendors have to worry, too.'

GCN staff writer Preeti Vasishtha contributed to this report.

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