When the cloud complicates 508 compliance

When the cloud complicates 508 compliance

The National Institute of Standards and Technology found that as organizations move to cloud-based systems and platforms, the accessibility for employees with disabilities can be compromised.

Accessibility tools for those with disabilities rely on local computers capable of running them. And with most software and information now migrating to remote locations accessed through the Internet, NIST warned, those tools might not function.

The agency's Cloud Accessibility Public Working Group’s draft report, “Cloud Computing and Accessibility Considerations,” explores the challenges, barriers and opportunities federal IT managers are facing as they attempt to comply with two sometimes-competing directives: the accessibility requirements mandated under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the federal “cloud first” policy.

The Rehabilitation Act requires employers to provide equal access to computers and other IT services and information systems for workers with disabilities, and the cloud-first policy calls for federal agencies to implement cloud computing to improve security, reliability and cost-effectiveness.

The barriers outlined in the report begin with version control. When a cloud provider automatically upgrades the cloud computing software, the new version might not be compatible with products already used to aid accessibility.

Some cloud computing solutions also use browsers for cloud applications, adding an extra layer that has to successfully function with the accessibility features. For example, users working with a spreadsheet in the cloud need the operating system, a screen reader, a cloud-based spreadsheet and the browser to work together.

Cloud computing usually reduces the need for dedicated in-house support of various platforms and systems. However, a person with a disability may have difficulty navigating which device, version or application will best fit workplace requirements and accessibility needs, NIST found -- possibly disconnecting the user from enterprise-supported IT systems.

And because cloud computing occurs in the network and not on the desktop or user-facing devices, the screen renders at the back-end and sends an image to the user’s terminal, so some assistive technologies could fail. Screen enlargers, for example, can be useless if running on remote servers, as they would not have access to local terminal's screen information for tracking.

Organizations are also using cloud to transform dynamic data and large datasets into visualizations. Common accessibility solutions, like using alt text or the longdesc attribute to provide detailed descriptions of an image, are far less effective for such dynamic content.

However, the report found two encouraging examples of improving cloud-based accessibility: the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) and accessibility-focused application programming interfaces.

The GPII is a cross-industry, multiyear program to build an accessibility infrastructure in the cloud that would improve the access to all IT products and services, regardless of a user’s disability or usability issues. According to the NIST report, it will provide users with tools to select the interface and content adaptations they need, store those preferences in the cloud and automatically transfer them onto any device.

The use of accessibility APIs, meanwhile, could provide developers with tools for building software interfaces for accessibility features -- like voice recognition, screen readers and magnification -- that could integrate with operating systems and seamlessly adapt to future devices.

The combination of cloud and mobile computing on devices has already created an environment where the same software can run on multiple devices with different input and output capabilities. Developers should adopt accessibility APIs to build software and applications that can also run on a variety of platforms and open doors for wider accessibility to cloud-based resources, the report recommended.

Comments on the draft report are due April 29, 2016.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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