A federal law set to take effect this month could mean that school districts might one day be required to employ special software designed to make their web sites and technology practices accessible to visually impaired stakeholders.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 mandates that federal government agencies have until June 21 of this year to make sure that members of the public with disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairment, have access to information, computers, and networks comparable to the access enjoyed by people without disabilities.

All federal agency web sites must have a text equivalent—a description that can be vocalized—representing every picture, graphic, or icon. Multimedia presentations also must be synchronized with audio presentations. In other words, if you can’t see it, you must be able to hear it.

“There is nothing more frustrating than when the government says, ‘Well, it’s on the web. It’s a matter of public information. Just go and read it,'” said Ross Doerr, technology consultant for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. Doerr is a lawyer specializing in access for the disabled and is visually impaired himself.

Making government more accessible to the disabled involves more than adding wheelchair ramps to buildings, experts say. A New Hampshire software company is creating on-ramps to the information superhighway and helping government agencies bring themselves into compliance with the new regulations.

Hiawatha Island Software Co., or HiSoftware, produces AccVerify, a program that is helping several government agencies update their web sites so that visually impaired people can retrieve information. Users who log on to the edited sites can either zoom in on magnified images or hear descriptions of what appears on the screen.

“It’s very easy to think of buildings being accessible—bathrooms, wheelchair ramps—but when you talk to people about web site accessibility, they look at you and say, ‘What are you talking about?'” said Dana Simberkoff, the company’s vice president.

Even a blind person with state-of-the-art technology can only access between 20 percent and 40 percent of what’s on the internet, said Doerr.

“A computer that talks is not a machine for a blind person. It is their eyes,” he said. “It is doing something for that person that the medical community could not do yet. It gives them independence.”

HiSoftware counts among its clients the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the Department of Agriculture.

Using the software, agencies can “comply overnight and understand [the law],” said company President Robert Yonaitis.

The software tells the agencies the exact page, row, and column that must be made accessible and how to fix it. Yonaitis said he used the software on his own web site, making the material 98 percent accessible within four hours.

Though states aren’t required to make the same changes, HiSoftware is working with many state agencies to improve their web sites.

According to HiSoftware’s Simberkoff, Section 508 may be only a federal mandate right now, but a number of people believe the law will apply to state and local agencies and even corporate entities in the near future.

“Usually when the federal government sets a mandate like this, it is the bottom floor,” she said. “Other agencies will adopt the same policies after that.”

This “trickle-down” form of policy adoption is common when federal agencies implement broad-based regulations like Section 508, agreed Doerr.

“If you’re dealing with a school system, this [law] will probably apply there in the near future,” he said.

Doerr explained that any regulations on making school web site’s accessible to the blind will be state-specific, and he urged educators to contact their state education department and ask if there are regulations in place regarding web accessibility for the disabled.

He also said the issue of universal accessibility is a topic that should be addressed in any class that teaches students how to build useful, responsible web sites.

“If your schools are going to be teaching students how to create web sites, it’s best to look at this type of program so that you can build accessibility into your teaching,” said Doerr.

Links:

Hiawatha Island Software Co.
http://www.HiSoftware.com

New Hampshire Association for the Blind
http://www.peekaboo.net/nhab

Requirements of Section 508, Part 1194 Electronic And Information Technology Accessibility Standards:

1. A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided.

2. Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.

3. Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.

4. Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

5. Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.

6. Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps, except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.

7. Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.

8. Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.

9. Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.

10. Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.

11. A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.

12. When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.

13. When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in, or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with the above regulations.

14. When electronic forms are designed to be completed online, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.

15. A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.

16. When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.