Fed Agencies Scramble to Meet ADA Guidelines

Web Accessibility for the Disabled Has Many Questioning Their Sites<@VM>Checking Web Sites' ADA-Compliance

By Calli Schmidt, Contributing Writer

A looming federal mandate requiring government agencies to make new or revised Web sites accessible to people with disabilities is raising concerns among Web masters and industry officials that government agencies will not be ready to comply when the mandate takes hold this summer.

Fueling this concern is the uncertainty regarding the scope of the new law and the eventual cost to build and maintain compliant Web sites. Federal agencies could spend anywhere between $85 million and $691 million to comply, according to an economic assessment report from the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.

The new directives, contained in Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, state that after Aug. 7, any federal purchases of computers, software and electronic equipment used to disseminate information, including telephones, copiers and facsimile machines, must be accessible to persons with disabilities.

These directives apply to Web sites and online applications created after the Aug. 7 deadline, but not to existing sites. However, it is unclear whether the law eventually will require government agencies to retrofit existing Web sites, a move that could cost agencies almost $700 million, according to one estimate.

"Obviously, this is a gray area," said John Sorflaten, a project director at Human Factors International Inc., a 15-year-old Fairfield, Iowa, company that specializes in software ergonomics. "At what point does maintaining [a Web site] turn it into a new Web site?"

It also is unclear how businesses with government contracts will have to conform to the ADA regulations, he said. "It's going to be interesting to see how this is going to get trickled down into the government sector," Sorflaten said.

Because the law has not taken effect yet, there have been no lawsuits filed nor rulings made defining how the ADA directive will be applied.

With the deadline approaching, government agencies are taking a hard look at their Web sites to see if they are consistent with the guidelines. Some agencies simply can tweak their design practices when creating new pages, especially if they consist mainly of text.

In many cases, it will just take a little planning, said Craig Luigart, chief information officer for the Education Department. "It does take a mind-set that you are going to do it, and it is relatively simple if you do it going in," he said.

And while agencies with Web sites employing complex designs or customized software will have a harder time complying with the new directive, finding money to pay for these fixes will not be as difficult as it might seem, according to Joe Tozzi, director of the assistive technology program in the CIO office at the Education Department.

"Even the high-end estimate [of $691 million] is only a little over 2 percent of the entire federal information technology budget last year," he said.

Nevertheless, the potential difficulty has a number of industry experts calling for a closer look at the mandate, with some asking for more time to come into compliance.

"Our fear is that faced with this ambiguity agencies will postpone or cancel the purchase of new IT solutions," said Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller in a press release.

Miller suggested that federal agencies will be deprived of new technology, and that important IT-enabled public services will suffer. But disabled workers will not receive Section 508 compliant products any faster.

"This will be a lose-lose-lose situation," he said.

The accessibility problem can be traced to the many ways to create a Web site and a lack of consistency in their construction.

Also, some content-management software and Web-enabled programs create pages that are not accessible to some persons with disabilities because that audience was not considered, and "the technology isn't there yet," said Ed Frease, an account executive at Human Factors International.

For instance:

? Some Web sites feature colorful graphics that are not accessible to blind people because software that "reads" aloud the content of the site to the user recognizes photographs, pictures or icons on the pages only by saying "image." Tables and frames also are confusing because most software reads the Web site from left to right, jumping from frame to frame and back again.

? Web sites with multiple hyperlinks and icons spaced close together may look visually pleasing but are hard to navigate by people with motor skill difficulties who cannot easily manipulate a mouse.

? Applets and design programs that flash messages or change colors in a strobe effect make the Web site hard to access for some people with neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, or who lack the cognitive skills to grasp information quickly.

The ADA directive also requires that the Web site accommodate the limitations of the software that some disabled people use to view it. For instance, a pie chart that visually explains revenue allocation could have an accompanying caption or HTML "longdesc" that explains with words where the money is going.

Accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium describe various ways to comply with ADA standards. These include using text equivalents for images (for people who use speech synthesizers and Braille displays), using row and column headers on data tables (so that the table content is not confused with the rest of the text) and making sure that pages still work if the applets and scripts are turned off (for people who can only use plain, text-only browsers).

A checklist to examine Web site compatibility is available at the W3C Web site, www.w3.org.

It is easier now than it used to be, said Tozzi. "Five years ago, the state of the art was not what it is today, and having a text-only page was probably the safest approach to providing an accessible page to those that could not use the screen and needed to use a screen reader," he said.

"Today, the state of the art in screen readers and in Web development software has reached a stage where a lot of the aspects of the graphic interface can be interpreted by the screen reader. It goes to how the page is designed and the level of sophistication of the screen reader," Tozzi said.

"The text alternative is always an option that can be used at the lowest level, but the industry is growing at a very rapid pace. All the major software houses already have assistive technology or accessibility teams working on these issues. [The ADA directive] definitely has accelerated their participation," he said.

Steve Dorsky, director of e-business solutions for DynCorp Business Solutions in Reston, Va., agreed that DynCorp and most other dot-gov vendors use top-of-the-line e-commerce solutions in which "usability is designed right on through to implementation," he said.

But the government employee who wants to use the lower-level program sitting on his desktop, such as Microsoft Corp.'s new FrontPage 2000, to add a document or other component to the site will have problems.

Unless the user has enough hours of experience and training to know how to override FrontPage2000's defaults, which include the Windows character set rather than the more compatible ISO 8859-1, pages will not be accessible according to the W3C guidelines, according to HFI technical specialist Terence de Giere. Such accessibility problems are typical of most of the software now used to create Web pages, he said.

Microsoft of Redmond, Wash., is aware of the FrontPage 2000 compatibility problems and is working to correct them with the next version, due out early next year, said Tom Bailey, lead product manager for the Web authoring software. It chose the Windows character set as a default because it has more characters available than ISO 8859-1 and is easy to read in most browsers, he said.

But if screen-reading software cannot read the FrontPage2000 page, "the key for our disability customers is to open up the template and change the character set," a simple point-and-click operation, he said.

Microsoft also plans to release an add-on tool to allow FrontPage2000 users to check their pages for accessibility, Bailey said.

When creating accessible sites, Web masters should follow the directive for new pages and updates before attempting to go back and fix the old ones, said Rich Kellett, division director for the emerging IT policies division at the General Services Administration.

"The second priority should be to upgrade past materials," he said. "When you think about the huge base [of information on the Internet] that gets installed over time ... it's often extremely expensive to go back and retrofit corrections."

Regulators should avoid an interpretation of the ADA that makes Web masters think it is too difficult to comply and keep them from fixing old sites or posting any new information at all, and "stem the free flow of information on the Web," Kellett said.

"Agencies have limited funds, and that might put a dent in that free flow of information," he said. "Web masters as a group, I am absolutely convinced, have been trying to address this for several years. They are very motivated to address ADA, but everybody's running on the Web very, very fast, and you do the best you can."

Neither should the directives be interpreted as a way to stifle creativity, Tozzi said. "We need to find a way for all individuals to enjoy that creativity. All [the disabled person] wants to know is what's going on." A detailed look at the Americans with Disabilities Act Section 508, which mandates that all federal electronic and information purchases made after Aug. 7 be accessible to persons with disabilities, is available on the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board Web site at www.access-board.gov/RULES/
508nprm.htm.

A checklist to determine a Web site's accessibility is available from the World Wide Web Consortium at www.w3.org/tr/wai-webcontent-techs.

The Center for Applied Special Technology features "Bobby," a free service that allows users to examine Web sites for accessibility by typing in the URLs in question in the space provided at www.cast.org/bobby. Web sites that meet W3C accessibility guidelines as determined by Bobby can display the "Bobby approved" icon on their pages.

W3C also has available at its Web site "HTML Tidy," a free program that examines the coding on a Web page that, among other functions, determines whether tables on that page are compatible with aural browsers for blind users.

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