Don't fear 508
Thomas R. Temin
Certainly, few initiatives since the year 2000 conversion have produced so much fear, uncertainty and doubt as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments.
Any time Congress creates fresh grounds for lawsuits, as it did with 508, agencies tend to panic. But there's no real cause for the kind of confusion and, in some cases, terror that has gripped agencies as the various deadlines approach.
You have until June 21 to make systems and Web sites accessible. While it's true the disabled can sue the government after that date, there are alternative provisions agencies can make. The government has protected itself fairly well.
Beyond the legalities lie the technological issues of making Web sites and other systems accessible. Near-universal accessibility is a good idea for two fundamental reasons, whether Section 508 forces the issue or not.
First is simple fairness and equity. The benefits of information technology should not be restricted to the fully able. In fact, severely handicapped people, such as quadriplegics, have been projecting their intellects for many years with the augmentation of specialized IT input and output devices.
Second, especially for Web sites, it turns out that it's fairly straightforward to make a careful, highly usable system accessible. Clear and navigable layouts, logical link patterns, and freedom from excessive graphics and audio-visual gewgaws make a Web site easier and more efficient for all users. A site so designed is more likely to be compatible with add-on products for screen reading, type enlargement and the like.
Take a page from the National Institutes of Health, where webmasters have become experts at making sites usable by an aging population. See the National Library of Medicine's tips at www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/checklist.pdf
Mandates and deadlines are never much fun. But if your agency views its Section 508 obligation as a reason to re-examine Web sites in terms of general usability, chances are you'll not only be far closer to compliance, but you'll also have sites that are friendlier for all users.
Thomas R. TeminEditorial director