Section 508: Reconstruction in progress

Web technologies outpace accessibility law and require a major rewrite of 508 standards

Tajaun Farmer didn't think he could have an information technology career. At age five, Farmer was diagnosed with glaucoma. The disease severely impaired his vision. Farmer graduated from college, but he never imagined that he could hold a job that required him to use computers.

'I really felt overwhelmed because a lot of the resources were not there,' Farmer said.

But as a federal contractor, Farmer has been able to work with computers, most recently as a call center employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has the benefit of computer screen readers and magnifiers that federal agencies are required to provide their employees under a provision of federal law known as Section 508.

Written as part of a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires federal agencies to procure IT that is accessible to people with disabilities.

However, that early provision lacked an enforcement mechanism, and few agencies complied. The Workforce Investment Act of 1997 amended Section 508 to set an enforcement deadline. All hardware and software sold to the government must now be 508 compliant.

But some experts say the 508 provision is outdated, which complicates compliance. Recognizing the problem, the U.S. Access Board appointed an advisory committee last year to review and rewrite Section 508. That task has turned into a major one as members appointed by the independent federal agency discover interoperability problems with new technologies and other shortfalls in the provision's standards.

Everyone benefits
Federal employees have been the primary beneficiaries of Section 508, but they are not the only ones. Consumers benefit, too. Because all federal IT purchases must comply with accessibility standards, developers have added 508 compliance to their commercial releases. For example, Microsoft's new Vista operating system is 508 compliant because the federal government requires it. 

'One of the purposes of 508 is to use the vast power of the government as a driver of markets,' said Jim McCarthy, director of government affairs at the National Federation of the Blind.

The IT market is highly competitive, said Michael Takemura, director of Hewlett-Packard's Accessibility Program Office. 'If you can differentiate your products, which can be the product itself or the information you're providing, that gives you a competitive edge.'

Section 508 is the reason laptop cases have a single latch located at the top-middle of the screen, Takemura said. Early laptop manufacturers built latches on the side of the screen, but people with reduced motor control or hand injuries found them difficult to open.

Some of the greatest benefits to people with disabilities, however, have come from Web sites that meet 508 standards.

'508 has been superb for the Web and government Web sites,' said Don Barrett, assistive technology specialist at the Education Department. 'You can say to developers, 'This is not working,' and they can go back and fix the HTML' code.

What is a disability?
No one disputes the benefits of Section 508, but complying with the law has never been easy. Barrett said the biggest reason for noncompliance is a lack of understanding among agencies and vendors about what a disability is, and the limitations it creates.

'Unless you're familiar with disabilities, it's esoteric,' Barrett said.

Another reason for noncompliance is easier to fix. In 2004, the General Services Administration and the IT Industry Council created the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that agencies and companies can use to assess whether a product's features are 508 compliant.

VPAT is a good first step, Barrett said. However, procurement officials still might have difficulty determining a product's 508 compliance.

'A lot of vendors will tell us, 'We've sold to a number of agencies, and nobody really asked us [about 508],'' Barrett said. In some cases, he added, vendors simply claim that their product is 508 compliant, and agencies don't bother to verify the claim.

Such behavior happens when accessibility is a low priority for an agency's top managers.

'It's critically important that you get top management support within an organization so you can make 508 work,' said Pat Sheehan, Section 508 coordinator at the VA. Sheehan said the VA's CIO, Rob Howard, is a strong supporter of Section 508. Without Howard's commitment, for example, a lot of technology wouldn't trickle down to places where it is needed, Sheehan said.

In addition to getting managers' support, testing products for 508 compliance is also critical. Testing reveals how specific products work for people with particular disabilities, Barrett said. Some agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, are committed to testing for 508 compliance before buying IT products.

'We do testing for procurements, whether it's hardware, [commercial] software packages or internally developed applications,' said Mike Fratkin, an accessibility specialist at SSA.

SSA also releases guidebooks to help others learn about and test for 508 compliance. They also help vendors produce compliant products, Fratkin said.

The 508 provision has teeth. If an agency is non-compliant, people who believe someone has violated it can sue. However, no special entity oversees enforcement. 

Section 508 'doesn't put anyone as the central authority,' said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation at GSA. 'Effectively, the monitoring of 508 is if lawsuits are filed.'

However, no one has ever filed a lawsuit. But people have often used arbitration to enforce the provision in cases filed through unions and other organizations. Some arbitration cases result in large fines, which agencies must pay.

The National Treasury Employees Union took on a case in January 2006, which resulted in an employee receiving $32,000.

'When we see violations of federal laws designed to help and protect certain classes of employees, we take action through the grievance and arbitration process,' said NTEU President Colleen Kelley.

Outdated standards
Section 508 has received attention recently, however, because experts say its technical standards are outmoded.

'We're trying to create guidelines that not only work today but also with technologies that are upcoming,' said Greg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center, which develops ways to make IT systems more accessible to people with disabilities. He is also chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium's accessibility standards division.

'It is now possible to accommodate people with a much wider range of disabilities than ever before, but we're finding many of the old solution strategies won't work with the new technologies,' Vanderheiden said.

The 508 standards, for example, refer to tactile cues. That phrase creates confusion because many technologies now provide tactile cues. A tactile cue could be the horizontal nubs on the F and J keys on keyboards or the small bump in the center of cell phone keypads. A clearly defined standard for tactile cues could apply to a wide range of hardware devices and avoid some of the confusion created by vendors' use of generalized terms, such as tactically discernible.

The committee of experts that will rewrite the 508 standards must also address the problem of defining disabled. The disabled and disadvantaged are not one homogenous group, Takemura said. A product that is 508 compliant for people with a certain disability might not be compliant for others with a different type of disability.

Keyboards are a good example. People with weakness in their hands or fingers need keys that are easier to strike than standard keys. But a keyboard meeting that requirement might not be appropriate for people with tremors, who might inadvertently hit multiple keys if they had to use such a keyboard.

However, the biggest challenge facing the standards committee is making the standards flexible enough to apply to new technologies. In their current form, the 508 standards barely acknowledge even well-established Web technologies such as Bluetooth, streaming video and Flash, experts say.

Federal agencies have made progress keeping their Web sites up to date, but the fast-growing use of Web applications has created new accessibility problems. Committee members were comfortable with Web site and software application standards, but they had difficulty defining 508 standards for Web applications. 

The committee expects to borrow from Web site and software development standards to create standards for 508-compliant Web applications.

'We should try to look at how some of these can be combined,' Fratkin said.

Web application standards, for example, lack requirements for keyboard shortcuts or hot keys that perform predefined functions. In contrast, software development standards require hot keys.

Current 508 Web standards require plug-ins to make browsing accessible to people with disabilities, but sometimes plug-ins fail to work in environments such as Flash, Java or Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language. Two of those environments ' Flash and AJAX ' fail to support some basic 508 requirements, such as keyboard shortcuts and screen reader compatibility.

Because of such problems, the advisory committee might be forced to consider 508 standards for some Web applications on a case-by-case basis, experts say. Meanwhile, the committee has formed nine subcommittees to review categories of products for 508 compliance.

Weaver said many of the committee members who are committed to improving Section 508 are disabled and have a personal stake in updating its technical standards. 'It's a fun challenge,' Takemura said. '[It's about] how can you reach the broadest audience.'

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