Uphill toward 508

Uphill toward 508

It's a work in progress, feds say

BY DIPKA BHAMBHANI | GCN STAFF

A year ago, Dan Grauman bought $50,000 worth of accessibility software that could convert the 5 million graphics on the National Cancer Institute's Web site into descriptive text easily read by a screen reader.

But even with a year to work, he had little hope of meeting what he considered to be an elusive June 21 deadline for complying with Section 508 requirements.

He was right about his chances but, like many of
his peers at other agencies, he's still plugging away. And, that June deadline proved to be more slippery than even he had thought.


GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE: 'We're in the beginning of the execution phase,' Education CIO Craig Luigart says.


Why? 'There wasn't a deadline to begin with,' said Ken Nakata, a lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. 'It wasn't as if anyone ever said, 'You're content has to available or else a giant hand will squash you.' '
Grauman acknowledged the logic of Nakata's point. 'They didn't start on the 22nd of June to shut down Web sites,' said the computer specialist for the institute's Cancer of Epidemiology and Genetics Division. Nevertheless, the Web work continues.

'You have to at least show you're doing something about it, and current Web sites still have to be brought into compliance,' he said.

Grauman's experience underscores the confusion that has surrounded efforts to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. Dates associated with 508'June 21, June 25, July 27'for the most part have represented goals.

June 25 was a real deadline etched in new language added to the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It's the date after which new procurements and task orders had to comply with accessibility requirements.

The others were target dates'although the June 21 date did technically open agencies to the threat of lawsuits over noncompliance. The Section 508 rule drafted by the federal Access Board identified June 21 as the day that the law's requirements took effect.

President Clinton set the July 27 date in an executive memorandum calling for agencies to make their Web sites accessible to disabled users. He signed the memo on July 26, 2000, the 10-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On June 21, David Capozzi, director for technical and information services for the Access Board, said at a press conference in Washington, 'June 21 marks the implementation of 508. It's not the end; it's only the beginning.'

Doug Wakefield, designated federal official on 508 regulation for the board, agreed: 'There's a misunderstanding as to what was going to happen on the 21st; the lights did not go out. It's an ongoing process.'

Craig Luigart, the Education Department's chief information officer and the CIO Council's representative on Section 508 and accessibility issues, voiced a similar view.

'We're in the beginning of the execution phase,' he said. 'And so far I think we're still learning. And I always caution that this is a systems problem, not a point-in-space problem.

We'll have hurdles tomorrow that we did not envision because we're living in a world where there are new technologies every day. So it's a living process, a living law.'

To be sure, for Grauman and other information technology specialists, accessibility will always be a continuing effort requiring changes to hardware, software and services.

'It's one of those government regulations you just have to look at and interpret,' said Helen Chamberlain, project manager for the Federal IT Accessibility Initiative at the General Services Administration' Center for IT Accommodation.

After all, it wasn't until about a week before the deadline that the Defense and Transportation departments bought software to help them make their Web sites accessible.

Industry is treating accessibility as a going concern as well'nearly 300 accessibility product vendors will display their wares at the National Institutes of Health's Accessible & Assistive Technology Exposition on July 26.

'The regulations and guidelines have stimulated the industry, and it didn't start with 508,' Wakefield said.

According to a recent report by the Justice Department, Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility, nearly one-third of the 3,028 Web pages from the top 20 federal Web sites did not incorporate alternative text for their images.

The department's next report, due shortly, will focus on Web sites rather than pages and systems, as the April report did.

The current report noted that the majority of agencies were at least 50 percent compliant and that some were already 100 percent compliant, Chamberlain said.

And Wakefield said he expects the August report to show improvement in agencies' sites.

'Their main goal is to get information out, not to get glitzy,' he said. Many federal sites don't use complex features such as animation because they don't work well over slow IP connections. So making sites accessible shouldn't be an ordeal for most agencies, he said.

But that's not true for all agencies. Take for instance a site such as the National Cancer Institute's, Grauman said. The number and complexity of the graphics makes accessibility a more complicated issue, he said. 'You can't make every single picture and video accessible.'

Agencies choosing to cite undue burden as an exemption for not making their sites accessible, as Section 508 allows, must provide the information from the Web site in another format to disabled users. They can, for instance, post a phone number people can call to have printed information mailed to them.

That's why the Access Board's job never ends, Wakefield said. It will soon start developing guidelines for Section 509 to monitor technology developments and update standards, he said. 'Especially in the information technology area, stuff moves so fast.' Section 509 extends equal access provisions to Congress.

The threat of lawsuits might have inspired a few agencies to become accessible by the deadline, Justice's Nakata said. But users long have had a mechanism for suing over accessibility available to them in Section 504. That section of the Rehabilitation Act, established in 1973, requires accessibility for all people to government programs and activities.

'I'd be surprised if somebody filed a complaint under 508,' Nakata said. 'You've been open to lawsuits since 1973, and 508 isn't going to change anything.'

As long as an agency is showing disabled users it is making an effort, 'there isn't that much reason to fear,' he said.

Luigart agreed. 'I'm not concerned yet about lawsuits as long as we continue to show partnership and aggressive movement on the issues,' he said. 'I think the disabled community has a degree of tolerance.'

He added a word of caution: 'I think, were the community to see a lack of intent or a lack of progress, then you would see some lawsuits. May we see some lawsuits? Sure. Unfortunately, we live in the most litigious society on the face of the Earth. But right now, I think everyone recognizes that a lot of good things are going on.'

Some agencies did meet the June 21 deadline. The General Accounting Office made its entire Web site compliant as early as February. It used Bobby, a free application from the Center for Applied Special Technology that analyzes Web page source code for accessibility to disabled users, to find the problems.

Meanwhile, GSA's Chamberlain is focusing on the July 27 Web site accessibility deadline in the presidential memo, Renewing the Commitment to Ensure that Federal Programs are Free from Disability-based Discrimination.

'I think the agencies are still aware of this, and I'm still using it as a date,' she said. 'It was a request for support.' But there is no enforceability; it's just a goal, she said.

The Access Board's Capozzi agreed that July 27 isn't a cut-in-stone deadline. 'It wasn't part of the law; it was basically encouragement from the president,' he said.

But the lack of hard deadlines or looming legal
ramifications does not mean agencies can ignore accessibility. Congress can still intercede. And, ultimately, legal responses are available to displeased federal users.

'If you do not provide adequate accommodation, then a person has recourse,' she said.
Capozzi said the FAR makes is possible for disabled employees to file suit today if a procurement is not 508-compliant.

Nonetheless, increasing awareness about accessibility, a slew of new products and continued agency efforts are gradually succeeding in making systems accessible.

'The main point is, people need to start paying attention to 508,' Capozzi said. 'And they are.'

GCN associate editor for features Richard W. Walker contributed to this report.

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