Feds keep working on Section 508 compliance

Dinah Cohen, director of the Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program

More than a year after the deadline for agencies to meet Section 508's accessibility requirements, many are still tweaking programs and systems, IT managers said last month.

Building accessibility into systems rather than adding it on makes the process cheaper and easier, speakers said at the Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase in Washington.

'Accommodation is what you do after the fact,' said Bruce Bailey, assistive technology manager in the Education Department CIO Office. 'Accessibility is what you do beforehand.'
Making technologies accessible in advance often is less than half as expensive as modifying systems after the fact, he said.

To promote accessibility, the White House has ordered agencies planning major systems buys to incorporate plans into their budget submissions for complying with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. The Office of Management and Budget for the first time is requiring the information in agencies' fiscal 2004 budget requests, said Lesley Field, a procurement policy analyst for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

The Section 508 Working Group also has posted a frequently asked questions section on the government's Section 508 Web site, at www.section508.gov. The FAQs extend beyond the plain language of Section 508 regulations to clarify compliance procedures, Field said.

'The idea behind the working group is that Section 508 is not an afterthought' in procurement, she said. 'We are trying to institutionalize Section 508 for procurement.'

The Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program is refining its efforts to provide assistive technology to federal agencies, director Dinah Cohen said.

'We are the centrally funded program to provide assistive technologies and accommodations' for DOD users, she said. 'CAP will buy the assistive technology, pay for it and get it to the user.'

A lot of questions

CAP fielded 5,000 requests for accommodation in fiscal 2001, Cohen said. Since fiscal 1990, the agency has fielded 30,000 requests and now has 51 agency partners.

Cohen said CAP now turns around requests in seven to 10 days. The goal is to reduce that lag to three days by next year.

With the prevalence of graphics in applications and on the Web, 'a blind person can encounter objects that aren't described, and so has to contact a webmaster or a sighted colleague' to perform some tasks, she said.

Education's CIO office has hired blind users to perform usability testing, which has helped the department rate the accessibility of products, he said.

Bailey noted that companies are getting wise to 508, too. Microsoft Corp., for instance, has issued 'some very clear guidelines on what constitutes accessibility,' he said.

Bailey said he had compared the Microsoft guidelines for Windows 2000 Applications Specifications to the Subpart B guidelines that the Access Board has generated for Section 508.
In most cases, he found, the Microsoft and Access Board procedures covered similar areas regarding the use of color, sound, keyboard function and other system aspects.

But, unfortunately, 'you can actually find Microsoft products that don't comply completely with their own specifications,' he said.

Pat Sheehan, a computer specialist with the Veterans Affairs Department, said that VA's use of many different operating systems and apps also has impeded accessibility at times.

So VA will standardize on Microsoft Internet Explorer as its Web browser and Windows 2000 as its desktop OS, Sheehan said.

'When you have people working with [various OSes and browsers] you don't know where to attack the problem,' he said.


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