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Section 508 compliance doesn't get lost in the cloud

I was fortunate enough to be able to moderate a panel discussion at the Adobe Digital Government Assembly this week on how to use the cloud to train federal workers more efficiently.

The session was called "Optimizing Training and Mission Readiness through the Cloud." On the panel were Steve Cooper, former CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration; Brian Gilligan, the General Services Administration’s program manager for the Federal Buildings Personnel Training Act; Dean Pianta, founder of Evolve Media; and Emily Timmerman, solutions consultant for Adobe.

It was a lively discussion that covered lot of topics, but what caught my interest was that everyone on the panel was concerned about Section 508, which requires that federal agencies make IT resources available for people with disabilities. I used to conduct live product demonstrations at GCN’s 508 conference, so I’m pretty tapped into that area of government. And I know that it can be a bit of a scattershot looking at how various agencies attempt to comply with 508. In the past, some have simply slapped a screen-reader onto whatever they had and called it a day, while others went beyond the call of duty to try and make things really easy for people with disabilities.

With agencies moving increasingly to cloud services and mobile access, Section 508 isn’t something you hear a lot about, so I was glad to hear that it was a priority for all of panelists.

In fact, they seemed almost more concerned about 508 than security, something else I asked about. Cooper explained that the FAA had spent three years working out how to encrypt training in the cloud, and now the agency had things locked down pretty well. But 508 compliance is an ongoing effort.

Gilligan said that 508 was at the core of everything GSA was doing with its cloud training, and that nothing would ever be deployed without 508 compliance. It is simply part of the process at GSA.

Pianta said that his company was working to help federal agencies go beyond the requirements. For example, instead of just a caption program that describes a scene, he is working to make the captions scroll along with a speaker, so that a disabled person can experience dynamic content similarly to someone who isn’t physically challenged.

And Timmerman said that many Adobe programs were already 508 compliant, so federal agencies who use them for their cloud training didn’t have to re-invent the wheel to make sure that everyone could experience their content on more equal footing.

And then I read about this new Disability and Rehabilitation Research Project on Inclusive Cloud and Web Computing. The program aims to create a way for anyone with a disability to log into a device and have his user profile and accessibility needs recognized. Then the appropriate tools would automatically be loaded up every time. Disabled users would not have to activate the tools themselves, thus removing another barrier to access, and one that programmers might not always consider. That might be something cool for Timmerman and Pianta to think about as they continue to improve their own toolset.

Over the years of reporting on 508 in government, I’ve seen the complete spectrum of reactions from federal IT folks, with everything from annoyance to enthusiastic support. This week I saw something else: complete acceptance. Making 508 work in the federal government is simply part of the process now, with nothing deployed without a 508 component. That was probably the ultimate goal when the rules were created.

Posted by John Breeden II on Feb 14, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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