Web browsers comply with Section 508

New versions tout better accessibility, but fresh issues loom for Web sites

Section 508 of the Rehabili-tation Act Amendments of 1998 requires government agencies to make the information technologies that they procure accessible to individuals with disabilities. Fortunately, when it comes to Web browsers, federal agencies have some choices. The software developers behind both the Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers have been working diligently to meet Section 508 compliance and improve Web accessibility in general.

To get a handle on these efforts, industry created a checklist called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. It is a voluntary statement of compliance that vendors can use to easily show agencies what aspects of Section 508 their products meet.

The Mozilla Foundation recently posted a VPAT for the newest version of its volunteer-developed Firefox Web browser. 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, and a method of providing information about the user interface so that an assistive technology application can represent that interface.

Although Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser does not have a VPAT itself, the company did prepare one for the various versions of its Microsoft Windows operating system, which include IE as a feature.

Microsoft also is considering a separate VPAT for the next version of IE, version 7, due this year, said Laurel Abbott, the lead program manager for Internet Explorer accessibility.

In addition to following 508 compliance, Microsoft also has endowed its browser with a number of accessibility features of its own'such as the ability to heighten the color contrast or even change the size and color of text on a page in order to make it easier to read.

The upcoming version of Internet Explorer will let users zoom in or enlarge the contents of a page in order to make them easier to read.

Although these browsers can accommodate users with limited eyesight, agencies should still be aware of this portion of their user base and design accordingly. The book Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines, published by the General Services Administration, has some good suggestions. For example, if you post a graphic, you should also post a text-based description of the image. Also, don't use color to convey information, and when using frames, provide titles.

Future 508 challenges

One growing accessibility problem not yet addressed by Section 508, but one that developers should be aware of, are issues surrounding dynamic Web pages and Web-based applications, in particular those rendered with Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language (AJAX). AJAX pages let users manipulate data on the browser without executing server calls.

'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,' said Aaron Leventhal, Web accessibility architect for IBM Corp.

For instance, using AJAX a developer could create a spreadsheet that runs in a browser. While this can be handy for users, in all likelihood no navigational aids would be put in place to help someone without eyesight understand where they were in the spreadsheet. According to Leventhal, the World Wide Web Consortium's Dynamic Web Content Accessibility workgroup has set out to address the issue.

About the Author

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


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