Presto: GSA's 508 wizard arrives

Many contracting officers still don't understand how to apply Section 508 accessibility standards. And the General Services Administration only added to the confusion with an early attempt at a quick reference guide for buying accessible federal IT.

Now GSA's Center for IT Accommodation and the Accessibility Forum, a nonprofit group, have developed a software tool to help buyers figure out what 508 standards apply to their technology purchases.

Users at the departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, the Geological Survey, GSA and IRS have been testing the Buy Accessible Wizard since March. GSA planned to release a second version last week for further testing, said Terry Weaver, director of GSA's Center for IT Accommodation.

'Contracting officers who made a lot of technology purchases became pretty good at following the 508 standards, but there was little consistency across government,' Weaver said. 'If you asked five people what standards apply to the same piece of hardware or software, you would get five different answers. The wizard makes sure there is consistency in using the standards, and it makes the process much quicker.'

Weaver said there are 66 provisions in six categories under Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments, and agency employees don't always understand how to apply them to their systems.

GSA's early reference guide assumed the user had a clear understanding of how 508 worked, Weaver said. But that was far from the case.

'Users were not getting fast answers about when 508 applies,' she said. 'Trying to walk someone through was complicated. The wizard is an attempt to make it simpler.'

The tool asks questions to figure out what parts of Section 508 apply to an IT purchase. Contracting officers enter the type of hardware or software they plan to buy, the cost, and how and by whom it will be used. The wizard shows a list of 508 standards that probably apply to the purchase. The wizard also has a product accessibility template for market research to make sure vendors' products actually meet the standards, Weaver said.

'It gives folks a paper trail to show they did their 508 homework,' Weaver added. 'Before the wizard, contracting officers had to do this manually.'

Weaver said the final version should be available for governmentwide use by Oct. 1.

Document problems

GSA asked the five or six testers at each participating agency to write down whatever problems they had in an online log. The group then met several times to discuss their experiences.

Weaver said the feedback improved Version 2. Changes include a quick reference guide in Extensible Markup Language and a search tool.

GSA and contractors developed the application using open-source tools: a MySQL database manager from MySQL Inc. of Seattle, Java Server Pages, JavaBeans and Apache Tomcat Web server software.

A rule exempting small IT purchases from 508 requirements is scheduled to expire Oct. 1, but the administration likely will extend it a few months, Weaver said.


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