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Beyond Braille New Rules Mandate Accessibility in all Digital Forms

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act has changed the way Web designers maintain Web sites for employees with disabilities. Complying with the rules can you better recruit people with disabilities and tap into another pool of potential employees.

February 28, 2001
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Related Topics: Disabilities, Internet, Intranets/Extranets
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Designs for equal access arecommonplace in buildings and public spaces, thanks to the Americans withDisabilities Act. Now builders of Web sites and other technology must ramp upfor accessibility.

    Last quarter, theFederal government issued Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508mandates electronic technology be accessible to all Federal employees withdisabilities, as well as disabled members of the public who want informationfrom Federal agencies.

    Before sighing inrelief that these new rules apply only to the Feds, read the fine print at www.section508.gov.In fact, these rules extend to the "development, procurement, maintenanceor use of electronic and information technology (IT)."

    So, your company'sproducts or services must fit within Section 508 accessibility guidelines if youwant the government to be permitted to buy or use them.

    For example, underSection 508, Web sites must:

  • Provide equivalent alternatives toauditory and visual content

  • Be operable without color cues

  • Include HTML and other software codethat can be interpreted by many kinds of browsers and systems

  • Be coded to render content readable(and speakable) across a wide variety of assistive technologies and computerdevices

    There are 14 majorguidelines for Web sites alone.

    Walt Houser, anadjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University teaching Web design ande-commerce, notes, "Section 508 (Federal) and the ADA (private sector)cover more than just Web pages. Computer software, hardware, multimedia,telecommunications, and closed devices like kiosks and e-directories also arecovered."

    The rules containteeth, too. Noncompliance makes vendors "subject to administrativecomplaints and private lawsuits by employees and members of the public."Under separate ADA guidelines issued in 1996, several banks have already settledlawsuits for installing ATMs that lacked universal access.

    "Most vendorsdon't want to develop two sets of products, one for the Feds and another for therest of us," said Bartlett Cleland, vice president of software for theInformation Technology Association of America (a trade group for techmanufacturers based in Arlington, VA). "So expect widespread adoption ofthese standards."

    It sounds like a lotof work, and indeed, the ITAA estimates its members will spend more than $670million to conform to Section 508. But there are benefits, too.

    "By complyingwith Section 508 in career Web sites, HR can better recruit people withdisabilities. It's another way to tap into another pool of potentialemployees," said Shawn Lawton Henry, director of research and developmentat Optavia, a Web accessibility-consulting firm.

    Adds EllynSchumacher, Web strategist in Knowledge Services, Lucent Corp., Sunnyvale, CA,"Section 508 compliance is an important voluntary effort for us. We wantour Intranet to be a total resource to support employees in doing their jobs.From online time and expense forms for workers in the field, to e-trainingresources, to policies and records, our people can get all of that through ourIntranet."

    Another bonus fortech companies is that code written for accessibility is portable, and often canbe used by wireless or handheld devices, a growing market. B.K. DeLong of theZOT Group in Boston, says, "The amount of devices that are becomingWeb-enabled require the ability of developers to write code once and have itviewed anywhere."

    DeLong, who alsohelped develop the Bobby tool to evaluate Web sites for accessibility, adds,"I'd recommend that HR professionals send Web developers and e-commercemanagers to learn how to make Web accessible sites. Whether it be taking onlinecourses via the HTML Writer's Guildor attending conferences on Web accessibility, this is valuable careertraining."

    Does your companyrequire diversity training?

    Consider making Webaccessibility the focus. "Rather than go through generic diversitytraining, offer training that is tailored more to the IT professional's jobcontent," Henry said.

    At AT&T, concernabout accessibility created alliances between HR and IT management. ElizabethReddington, a technical staff member within AT&T Solutions InformationTechnology Services (SITS) describes their corporate efforts.

    "Since early1999, I have been partnering with Human Resources and others across AT&T'sbusinesses to promote awareness of the new and evolving legal obligations andtechnical standards for accessibility," says Reddington.

    Reddington commendsHR managers within AT&T as "terrific" in their support. Sherecounts, "In the 1970's AT&T created groups such as Individuals WithDisabilities Enabling Advocacy Link (IDEAL) to support the needs of thebusiness. Today this ongoing relationship with IDEAL has paid off."

    When it came time toupdate AT&T internal employee services Web sites, HR knew about Section 508guidelines and could make the changes quickly.

    AT&T producedinternal recommendations for "best practices" to addressaccessibility:

  • Raise the level of awareness ofaccessibility issues within the company

  • Develop accessibility guidelines forproducts and services, and hold product developers accountable forimplementing these guidelines

  • Devote sufficient productdevelopment and engineering resources to address known accessibilityproblems

  • Make it easier to create accessibleproducts and services through training, guidelines, and technology solutionssuch as HTML authoring tools

  • Document the accessibility featuresof our products and services

  • Support internal and external (e.g.university-based) research and development that will improve thestate-of-the-art of accessible technology that is relevant to AT&Tproduct and services

  • Implement standards that advanceaccessibility, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards onaccessible browsers, content and authoring tools

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