Get access-friendly

Get access-friendly

A primer for online 508 compliance

BY SHAWN P. MCCARTHY | SPECIAL TO GCN

Take a deep breath and relax. Section 508 compliance, at least for your agency's online services, is easier than you think.

At its most basic, compliance means updating your electronic files. But what does full compliance mean? Will accessibility metrics stifle innovation? Can developers of niche accessibility products make peace with mainstream software providers that don't support every type of accessibility interface?

These issues will become clearer over the next few months. Meanwhile, most agencies' immediate goal is to get moving toward basic accessibility.

As most federal systems managers already know, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires agencies to make their electronic information, and the information systems themselves, accessible to disabled users. 508 affects everything from the height of office printers to the functionality of agency Web sites.

'The greatest need right now is for webmasters to know this is an issue and to know about the tools,' said Bill LaPlant, a Census Bureau computer scientist.

Census has been working on 508 accessibility for about two years, LaPlant said. That has meant hand-editing some files and running search-and-replace programs to insert text tags for graphics.

Besides Web issues, amendments to the Federal Acquisition Regulation, published earlier this year in the Federal Register, set a deadline of June 21 after which disabled federal employees can sue if they cannot use the same data and electronic equipment as other employees. See www.section508.gov/docs/Final99607A.htm. Some exceptions likely will be granted, however.


ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY AT WORK: USDA's Melvin Padgett, with guide dog Trevor, uses large-print screen readers such as SmartView CCTV from Pulse Data International.
On the commercial side, the FAR amendments effectively force vendors in the federal marketplace to meet disability guidelines or risk losing a chance at future contracts. That clock starts ticking on June 25.

Meanwhile, an industry consortium that includes Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Motorola Inc. and other vendors is working with the General Services Administration to develop a 508-compliant product template.

The template will be unveiled next month, said Microsoft's Section 508 coordinator, Laura Ruby (see Interview, Page 16).

Where to start if you haven't already? First, help the vision-impaired.

Go to the home page of your Web site. Reduce your monitor's brightness and contrast settings by 60 percent or more. Can you still see all the text and graphics?

If not, start by fixing your Web pages so that those with limited sight can use them. Adjust the background and text colors across the site to achieve greater contrast. Make fonts bigger. Post fewer and larger graphics. Make sure you use the Hypertext Markup Language's Alt attribute to describe the function of each graphic.

Tools for older docs

To edit older documents used on the site, Microsoft FrontPage 2000 has tools for inserting Alt and other special tags.

If the pages are dynamically generated, you may only have to adjust the templates and display rules. For older documents, several HTML editors have search-and-replace functions to insert specialized tags or change text across multiple pages.

If your Web server runs ColdFusion from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, you can edit the code with Dreamweaver UltraDev 4 Studio. It's available at www.coldfusion.com/products/coldfusion/productinformation/tools.cfm.

As you update, try to cram less information on the top-level pages and provide ways to click through for details and choices.

Next, find out whether your own vision-impaired employees can access your applications and data through their screen readers. Can vision-impaired visitors to your Web site easily understand the information via their own screen readers?

Start with internal client systems running Microsoft Windows 9x, Millennium Edition, NT or 2000. Screen reader programs available for these operating systems can send the text content on-screen to the computer sound card and speakers via a synthesized voice or to refreshable Braille displays.


USDA rehabilitation engineer Kathy Eng demonstrates voice recognition software from Lernout & Hauspie of Burlington, Mass.
The JAWS, or job access with speech, application for Windows from Freedom Scientific Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., is one of the most popular screen readers. The same company offers its Magic app for screen magnification plus speech. See details about both at www.hj.com.

While you're there, take a look at the streamlined JAWS product page. It's a good example of how many 508-compliant pages might look in the future.

Another popular screen reader is Window-Eyes from GW Micro Inc. of Fort Wayne, Ind. Window-Eyes and an MS-DOS reader called Vocal-Eyes are available at www.gwmicro.com.

Alva Access Group Inc. of Oakland, Calif., also makes products to improve accessibility. For information about Alva's Unix screen readers and Braille interfaces, visit www.aagi.com/aagi/crossref03.html. And for information about its outSpoken screen reader for the Mac OS, visit www.aagi.com/aagi/osw09.asp.

If your agency's internal legacy applications are accessible through a Web interface, a good part of your job is done. Browser-compatible screen readers effectively open up public access to databases, article archives and applications. Without legacy-to-Web access, you face more of a challenge.

Your best investment might be to develop Web interfaces for older information systems rather than try to invent screen readers and other access methods for each of them.
The next challenge is data presentation on the page.

Frames are always a problem for disabled users. Even though some screen readers can analyze frames, the reading order is unclear. Listeners get confused, and navigation can be difficult. If you haven't yet moved from frames to dynamically generated pages, it is now time to do so.

Another issue is the format of the information on pages. Data elements must be properly tagged. In the best case, that means following the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines set up by the World Wide Web Consortium. View the working document at www.w3.org/TR/2001/WD-UAAG10-20010409.

The rules are extensive. The level of detail about tagging and display, HTML, Extensible Markup Language, style sheets and the like extends beyond the scope of your immediate deadlines.

Long-term plans

Consider the guidelines a map for where the world is heading in the long term, not where you need to be next month.

To make a quick assessment of how your site stacks up, try the Bobby tool created by the Center for Applied Special Technology of Peabody, Mass. You'll find it at www.cast.org/bobby.


Using a low-vision monitor and a hearing station, Agriculture disability coordinator Pamela Steed tries out ZoomText Xtra, a magnification application and screen reader from Ai Squared of Manchester Center, Vt.
Avoid tables on your pages whenever possible. If tables must be used for multicolumn text, make sure you follow the standards for how the text should flow.

Some government data has to appear in tabular format. The trick is to keep the tables as short as possible, so viewers don't drown in data before they can digest it. Headers that span multiple columns also are confusing and should be avoided.

Census' LaPlant suggested conducting two tests. First, download the free Links text browser from links.sourceforge.net to review the way your site will look to a screen reader.

Second, find employees at your agency who already use assistive technology. Ask them to review your site.

The final and greatest challenge is legacy data. Government sites have thousands of databases and documents that don't meet the 508 standards.

Here are some quick fixes:

If your agency builds tables and charts on the fly from real-time data, check out the PopChart D-link descriptive text tool from Corda Technologies Inc. of Lindon, Utah.

The Corda tool inserts Alt descriptions as charts and graphs are built, making data accessible to screen readers.

Details about PopChart appear at www.corda.com/press/d/prerelease.cfm.

Whether you are creating new files or cleaning up older ones, make the changes within the same markup tool that you use to create files.

The most urgent deadline right now is to achieve basic compliance with 508.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

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