A federal law that took effect last 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 mandated that federal government agencies had 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 with 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 cannot 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 of their web site 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, who said the law is likely to apply to school systems, too, in the near future.

Doerr explained that any regulations on making school web sites 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