Section 508: Built into business

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Forum: Section 508
Making federal agency Web sites accessible to people with disabilities remains a mountain of work for federal agency accessibility experts and Web designers. Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodation at the General Services Administration, will take your questions in a live, online forum. Weaver and the center staff help agencies comply with Section 508 requirements.

Tuesday, Nov. 25
2 p.m., eastern

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Monica Dussman, Section 508 coordinator for Science Applications International Corp., said accessibility is now routinely designed into new federal Web sites and IT solutions. "It's definitely here to stay," she said.

Olivier Douliery

"We've shown improvement [in accessibility] over the last two years, but much more remains to be done." ? David Bibb, acting deputy administrator at the General Services Administration

Henrik G. de Gyor

Increasingly, agencies are asking for Web site remediation. "Agencies just don't have the manpower, so they ask us to make it accessible." ?  Deborah Ruh, president of TecAccess LLC

Henrik G. de Gyor

By Gail Repsher Emery

Two years ago, few agencies required contractors to provide information in their bids describing how their solutions would be made accessible to people with disabilities.

Two years ago, many Web designers thought designing for accessibility would "dumb down" their sites.

And two years ago, when people considered the government's information technology accessibility requirements, most thought only about altering Web sites to work with assistive technologies, such as screen readers for the blind. Few people thought about altering hardware, software and telecommunications.

Now, more than two and a half years since the Section 508 regulation for IT accessibility went into effect, thoughts have changed.

Government employees and IT contractors have learned that while Section 508 requires that new material added to federal Web sites must be accessible to people with disabilities, it also means that new electronic and information technology purchased by federal agencies must be accessible as well.

"I see the requirement for Section 508 put into almost every procurement. And I have seen a lot of [requests for proposals] say we are going to measure your compliance. Two years ago, I didn't see it as much," said Scott Lubow, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., McLean., Va., who works with the Internal Revenue Service on IT accessibility.

Agency employees and contractors also have learned that accessible Web site design doesn't have to be dull, and that it's best to require IT accessibility from the beginning of a project, not at the end, when it costs more and takes longer to implement.

"As somebody who uses assistive technology, I have seen 508 at work. Web sites are more accessible. The technology I use as an employee is more usable by me," said Chris Kuczynski, associate director of the Domestic Policy Council, who is blind. The council monitors the implementation of domestic policy initiatives for the White House.

Now, agency officials must work to ensure that all new government IT and Web sites become fully accessible to people with disabilities -- and remain so, government and industry executives said.

"We've shown improvement over the last two years, but much more remains to be done," said David Bibb, acting deputy administrator at the General Services Administration.

[IMGCAP(2)]Kuczynski and Bibb spoke last month at the Interagency Disabilities Educational Awareness Showcase conference in Washington, where government and industry officials met to discuss the issues and technologies surrounding Section 508. GSA and PostNewsweek Tech Media, publisher of Washington Technology, produced the annual symposium.

The IDEAS conference drew 1,250 people, double the attendance in 2002. The increase, Bibb said, is "a testament to this critical field."

 

JUST PART OF BUSINESS

Congress created this critical field -- Section 508 -- in 1998 to ensure that the nation's 54 million people with disabilities have equal access to government information technology.

After the accessibility requirements became law, it took government and industry groups more than two years to create a series of standards for IT accessibility.

The standards apply to all government electronic and information technology, from hardware and software to Web sites, phones and copiers. In June 2001, about six months after the standards were published, they became part of the federal government's rules for buying products and services.

Because the new rules required agencies to buy the most accessible technologies on the market, industry was effectively forced to adapt its offerings or risk losing the U.S. government -- the world's biggest purchaser of IT -- as a customer.

Ray Bjorklund, who studies the federal IT market for McLean, Va.-based research firm Federal Sources Inc., said industry's initial worries have been largely unrealized.

"When I first was following Section 508, industry was in a big tizzy about what impact it would have on their product lines," he said. "It's just a course of business now. It doesn't seem like anybody is crashing and burning over the 508 requirements."

Now, in fact, almost every large IT manufacturer has a manager in charge of a program for accessibility, said Rex Lint, an accessibility consultant.

"They're all expending some serious intellectual horsepower," said Lint, chairman of the Section 508 committee of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va.

For example, one large U.S. software corporation has about 30 people working on accessibility, and a large hardware, software and services company has an accessibility group of about 15, Lint said.

At Science Applications International Corp., about 15 people, spread throughout the company's business units, work on accessibility issues, said Monica Dussman, corporate Section 508 coordinator for the large federal systems integrator.

Section 508 is a part of normal operations throughout San Diego-based SAIC, Dussman said.

"The technical requirements of Section 508 became a new underlying threshold design principle for all our technical work. Just as information security became important several years ago, accessibility requirements have become another design element in all our federal services," Dussman said.

And it's not just the large IT firms who've caught on.

"More and more small businesses are getting the word on Section 508," Dussman said. "They understand the vendor with the most accessible product is going to be ahead of the game."

Still, some contractors haven't jumped on the bandwagon, said Glenn Perry, vice chairman of the Federal Acquisition Council, a group of senior acquisition professionals that works to improve how the government buys products and services.

"Some say, 'We'll catch you on the next release.' We still have work to do," Perry said.

 

508 MEANS STEADY WORK

Sometimes a strict approach to compliance works best, according to Fred DiFiore, electronic and information technology coordinator at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"If a Web page is not compliant, we pull it. If a product is not compliant, the contractor fixes it on its own dime. You do it once, and everybody starts listening to you," Fiore told government and industry attendees at the IDEAS conference.

One of the biggest challenges today is teaching federal employees that meeting the Section 508 requirements isn't a one-time event, said Terry Weaver, director of GSA's Center for IT Accommodation. The center provides implementation assistance governmentwide.

"Web masters understand what needs to be done, but they're having problems communicating that to the content owners," Weaver said. "People frequently create documents, not realizing they'll want to promote them [on the Web]. I want to see that they are planning for accessibility upfront. I don't want to see that deer-in-the-headlights look when I bring it up."

GSA, like several other agencies, is teaching federal employees how to design for accessibility. GSA is also developing a software tool that will help employees determine which accessibility standards apply to the product or service they want to buy. Often, requests for proposals include a blanket statement requiring vendors to certify that their product is accessible. This approach irks contractors, because agencies are supposed to specify the exact standards that apply to the procurement.

At the Federal Aviation Administration, staff members work with contractor Sytel Inc. of Bethesda, Md., to provide training in Section 508. Booz Allen helps with the task at the IRS. One of Booz Allen's courses in accessible software development is available to all agencies through the GSA Schedules.

[IMGCAP(3)]At the FAA, "our biggest challenge is making sure our work force is aware of the Section 508 provisions. We're very proud of our training program," said Deborah Douglas Slade, the agency's Section 508 coordinator. The program includes a CD with coursework on the history of Section 508, the procurement process, and Web site, video and multimedia accessibility. More than 2,600 employees have been trained so far, Slade said.

Contractors such as SAIC, Sytel and TecAccess LLC of Rockville, Md., pass along their institutional knowledge as they help agency employees learn to evaluate their sites' accessibility and design for accessibility. Increasingly, agencies are asking for Web site remediation, said Deborah Ruh, president of TecAccess.

"Agencies just don't have the manpower, so they ask us to make it accessible," Ruh said. Along with the fix comes a document that tells the agency's Web designers how to do it themselves.

The way Ruh sees it, agencies can keep coming back to her for a fix, but doing so doesn't make for a good return on their investment.

But does this practice mean niche accessibility companies, such as TecAccess, and accessibility services provided by large firms such as SAIC, will soon work themselves out of business? Dussman doesn't think so.

"You do what your client requires, and ideally you do such a good job, they want you back. A good job leads to other work, period," Dussman said. "You remediate a Web page, and the next step is to maintain the Web site. Accessibility is one part of the job."

The very fact that contractors are helping their clients design for accessibility is evidence that Section 508 is working, Lubow said. He envisions future work in devising ways to make new technologies comply with the standards.

Bjorklund said the Section 508 market is here to stay as well.

"As painful as it was to launch 508 and determine the right set of standards, the fact that Section 508 is now part of the normal course of business suggests to me that the community got it right," he said.

"I'm sure people will continually develop new technologies and programming techniques that will help people with disabilities. It's going to be a business that will continue for a long, long time."

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.
By Gail Repsher Emery

Now that designing for accessibility has become a way of doing business for federal IT contractors, they have another concern: Other governments will create their own, disparate standards for IT accessibility.

"What scares me is that the states think this [accessibility] is a good idea. I fear there will be 51 standards," said Rex Lint, chairman of the Section 508 committee of the Information Technology Association of America.

Forty-eight of 50 states now have rules on Web site accessibility, said Bob Regan, senior product manager for accessibility at software developer Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco. He said many national governments are pursuing accessibility standards as well. They include Australia, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Nothing is stopping other countries from adopting different standards "except a lot of lobbying from American companies" that already have spent time and money meeting the Section 508 standards, Lint said.

Disparate standards could slow the IT accessibility movement, said Department of Veterans Affairs official Craig Luigart.

"If you are Microsoft, IBM or Sun, trying to build hardware and software solutions that comply with a number of laws, you're probably going to wait for international law to solidify," said Luigart, the VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for policies, plans and programs.

Brad Westpfahl, director of government-industry programs for IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., agreed that a proliferation of standards could hinder the accessibility movement rather than advance it.

"If we have to build to Japanese standards, European Union standards, state standards -- that would be a very challenging thing for us and would probably slow deployment," he said.

IBM and other IT contractors would likely lobby against efforts to establish disparate accessibility standards, he said.

"Our view in industry is that having one worldwide standard for measuring accessibility is the best way to go, not only for industry but also for governments," Westpfahl said. "They could expect to see a greater variety of accessibility products with higher level of compliance sooner and at lower cost.

"We are hopeful governments will converge on one standard, and 508 is the leading candidate," he said.By Gail Repsher Emery

Making federal agency Web sites accessible to people with disabilities was -- and is -- a mountain of work for federal agency accessibility experts and Web designers.

"Say I have a Web site with 10,000 pages, which isn't that large. If I find that 3,000 pages have some Section 508 problems, where do I start?" asked David Grant, director of product marketing for Watchfire Corp. The Waltham, Mass., company tests for Web accessibility, privacy and quality.

Web site accessibility calls for compliance with 16 Section 508 standards. The standards require Web designers to do things such as:

  • Include text descriptions with all images that represent content, such as photographs

  • Ensure that online forms can be filled out by people who use assistive technologies, such as screen readers for the blind

  • Synchronize captioning with audio and video presentations on the Web.


Watchfire's enterprise testing platform conducts automated analysis of large, complex Web sites to find and prioritize accessibility problems for the employees who will fix them.

"We can tell you which are the most-visited pages; these are the ones you have to worry about first," Grant said.

The company's analysis of eight agency Web sites recently showed that half met all the Section 508 requirements and half did not. But it's tough to give agencies a pass or fail grade, Grant said, because a single error on a page means the site is not fully compliant.

"There are some areas agencies are really struggling with, like PDF files. They have a lot of older files that don't support accessibility plugins, and now they're trying to retrofit them. That's a long, expensive process," he said.

Watchfire analyzed the Web sites of the Defense Logistics Agency; Education, Energy and Labor departments; Library of Congress; International Trade Commission; and Sen. Ted Kennedy's office and the Senate (both of which are not required to comply with Section 508). The departments of Education and Energy, the International Trade Commission and Kennedy's site met all the Section 508 standards.

Among the other four agencies, all had instances of not providing alternative text to explain images such as photographs. Some also lacked text explanations for "spacer images," design elements that don't contribute content to the page. It is important to include text for these images because without it, blind people using screen readers will know they're missing something, but they won't know if it's important, according to Watchfire's analysis.

Within the government today, Web site accessibility is in a slow-growth phase, said Bob Regan, senior product manager for accessibility at software developer Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco.

"Most agencies now have good, high-level thought on accessibility," Regan said. "The challenge now is getting rolling-chair experts dispersed through the agencies, so designers can roll their chairs over to someone and ask 'How do you do this?' "

Even if only 25 percent of federal Web content was accessible today, he hypothesized, "that means one in four [designers] are rolling-chair experts in federal offices -- I think that's incredible. And the last 75 percent is a lot easier than the first 25 percent."

The Half-QWERTY keyboard by Matias Corp. of Ontario lets a single-handed user convert a regular desktop keyboard into one that uses half of the buttons by placing two characters on every key.

Matias Corp.

By Carlos Soto

Among recent advancements in Section 508 technologies, the most impressive have been those that allow disabled users to efficiently interact with a PC with minimal setup or expense.

In the past, the specially designed software or hardware could be difficult to learn or use, cumbersome to setup and expensive. Furthermore, most 508 technologies did not allow people with disabilities to use computers as effectively as nondisabled users.

But as we've seen in the Government Computer News Lab, less expensive solutions are now available from a multitude of vendors. These solutions incorporate software and hardware that is much easier for people with disabilities to navigate.

Perhaps the most impressive leaps are with dictation software. Older versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking by ScanSoft Corp. of Peabody, Mass., used to require long installs and long setups. Dictation software in general used to require at least 15 to 20 hours of training for the software to learn your voice.

These time-intensive processes usually required the user to read aloud for weeks and, at best, would reach an accuracy rating of 70 to 80 percent. At least that's as high as we ever got it -- until now.

Dragon Naturally Speaking 7.0, the latest from ScanSoft, takes minutes to install and only minutes of training to achieve an accuracy level that took hours with the older versions.

Also, Naturally Speaking can execute commands as well as accept dictation into a word processor. A half hour after installing the program, I was able to command the software to open Microsoft Word, maximize or minimize the window and begin writing.

The tough part with using this software is getting used to the new lingo. For example, I dictated the phrase, "I work at Government Computer News," and it knew to capitalize "Government" and "News," but not "computer." In the past this could have been a problem, but now that software is capable of accepting the command "cap that" to capitalize "Computer" in the phrase.

Likewise users have to get used to saying "click," followed by a command every time they want the software to perform an action a mouse would perform. They also must say "press" and then the desired command for an action that a keyboard would be used for.

For example, after my sentence, "I work at Government Computer News," I would select all and say "press delete," to erase the sentence and then say "click close," to terminate the program.

Dragon Naturally Speaking is priced at $199 for a full new version or $99 for an upgrade.

Hardware alternatives to software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking have their advantages and disadvantages. Although no software is usually needed, the install is faster, and no training is usually needed.

Such is the case with the Half-QWERTY keyboard by Matias Corp. of Ontario.

The Half-QWERTY keyboard lets a single-handed user convert a regular desktop keyboard into one that uses half of the buttons by placing two characters on every key.

To activate the half-keyboard option, a user pushes a ? button on the far right of the device. Once this is initiated, a user navigates from one character on a button to another by holding down the space bar.

In this configuration, the "w" and "o" are on the same button. Therefore, if I wanted to type "word" using one hand, I would type "w," hold down the space bar and the w key would become an "o." Then I would finish with the regular "r" and "d."

As you can imagine, it takes a little time to get used to. Although a user can never type as quickly in this half mode, Matias believes one could reach speeds of 60 words per minute with practice.

The Half-QWERTY keyboard is priced at $595 and is compatible with both Windows and Mac machines and needs no software to set up.

Carlos Soto, an associate editor and technology reviewer with Government Computer News, can be reached at csoto@postnewsweektech.com.

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