April 17, 2001Federal Web managers are hustling to meet a June 21 deadline requiring all agencies and departments to make information technology more accessible to federal employees with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that agencies ensure that federal employees and 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, assuming doing so would not cause an undue burden on an agency. When the accessibility rules become effective on June 21, any new information posted on federal Web sites must be accessible. Some of the changes mandated by the regulation include providing Web sites that can be read by screen readers, underlining links to other Web pages, minimizing blinking or flashing text and providing text screens for Webcasts. In January, the General Services Administration asked each agency to focus on its 20 most-visited Web sites and to put a priority on reaching compliance. Agencies must report their progress on Web site accessibility to the Justice Department by Friday. The results of the report are expected to go to Congress on Aug. 7. In the meantime, federal information technology managers are pushing to meet the June deadline. "Some agencies do have complexities that would be difficult to address, things like a high preponderance of images and graphics," one GSA official said. Another concern for many agencies and departments is Web site applications. While HTML is fairly accessible in its normal form, the more complex the Web page, the less likely it is to be accessible. Agencies with numerous Web pages are also more likely to have a hard time meeting the Section 508 deadline. At the Housing and Urban Development Department, compliance issues have been on the radar for some time, according to Sam Gallagher, HUD's associate Web manager. "We are very lucky, we did a lot of things right from the very beginning," Gallagher said. "We were sort of addressing it without knowing we were addressing it." HUD officials always assumed that a significant portion of their audience was people with low-end computers and slow modems, so the agency kept them in mind when crafting their Web site. "We started off with a single Web site and we've only had one Web site, instead of like in some organizations where each [office] went off and established their own Web sites," Gallagher said. "It made it much easier for us to comply." A small cottage industry is sprouting up around the Section 508 issue, including 508Compliant, a company that specializes in making Web sites Section 508-compliant, and AccVerify, software from HiSoftware that verifies that a Web site complies with the new legislation. Gallagher's suggestion for agencies just now tackling the issue is to view it as an altruistic project. "Making your Web site Section 508-compliant isn't a good thing to do because it's the law, it's a good thing to do because it's the right thing to do," he said. "There are still plenty of people out there with 14.4 modems trying to access your Web site, and you have to look at this as a way to access them as well." To help agencies convert to the new standards, GSA is hosting an information forum from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesday in its offices at 1800 F Street N.W.
April 17, 2001