New Firefox browser bulks up on 508 compliance

The Mozilla Foundation has posted a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) for the newest version of its Firefox Web browser, the first Section 508 compliance checklist ever posted for a browser, according to Aaron Leventhal, web accessibility architect for IBM Corp.

'Every item [applicable to browsers] is supported 100 percent, or is supported with some exceptions,' Leventhal said. The Firefox browser also has a number of features to help disabled users navigate dynamic Web pages'features not available in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Leventhal added.

The Mozilla Foundation, which manages the volunteer-based development of Firefox, released version 1.5 of the browser last week. IBM contributed about 50,000 lines of code to enhance the accessibility of the browser, according to the company.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires agencies to make their information technologies accessible to those with disabilities.

An industry consortium of application vendors issued the access template as a voluntary statement of compliance that vendors can use to easily show agencies what aspects of Section 508 their products meet, said David Baquis, accessibility specialist for the United States Access Board, the independent federal agency that issued the Section 508 Standards.

Leventhal admitted that earlier versions of Firefox had pretty poor accessibility, a trait that the new release rectifies. The Firefox VPAT describes a number of new features, including:
  • The ability to run a program entirely from a keyboard without the help of a mouse

  • A method of alerting assistive technologies which part of the program has the operating system's focus

  • A method to provide information about the user interface so that an assistive technology application can represent that interface to users and

  • Product documentation in alternate formats.

Leventhal pointed out that Firefox is the first browser with a VPAT. Although Microsoft Corp. has posted VPATs for a number of its applications, Internet Explorer is not among them. Various versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system, which include the IE browser built-in, do have VPAT templates though. And according to Laurel Abbott, lead program manager for Internet Explorer accessibility, the current version of IE has 508-compliant features.

In addition to VPAT specifications, Firefox developers also worked to ensure that the browser offers accessibility to dynamic web pages, in particular those Web applications rendered with Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language (AJAX). AJAX pages allow users to manipulate data on the browser without executing server calls.

'Up until now, there has been no way to make those kinds of Web applications accessible,' Leventhal said. 'We did an analysis of the gaps of what you can do with applications today that you can't do with the Web, and we filled all of those pieces in.'

For this endeavor, IBM is working on a World Wide Web Consortium's Dynamic Web Content Accessibility workgroup. That group has set out to address what it calls on its Web page the 'JavaScript Accessibility Problem,' or the challenge of making JavaScript widgets as accessible as standalone applications.

'The 508 requirements for Web pages might be a little bit too specific to ordinary HTML, and may not consider this possible future world where we're moving away from documents and to real applications available on the Web,' Leventhal said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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