Meeting Section 508 Standards

A lot of the work I do involves making electronic documents accessible for people with disabilities. I’m happy that I can provide this service, but following government regulations for compliance with section 508 of the 1998 Disabilities act actually hinders progress.

For me to post a document on the government Web sites I work on, I complete a lengthy sequence of checks and fixes to ensure an item meets compliance standards. If an item is not compliant, it doesn’t make it to the Web. The compliance makes it easier for a person to skim through an electronic file, whether they have a sight, hearing or physical impairment.

From what I’ve been told, approximately 10 percent of the population has a disability that requires the use assistive-reading technology (usual a computer program that reads the contents of the file to the user) to get at the information contained in these electronic documents. I basically add something akin to an index to the contents of the file so a computer program knows the proper reading order of the document contents and add descriptions for images in the file.

Again, all items I create must be compliant. But herein lies the issue. An edict has now been passed that requires all items on the sites I run to be compliant. If an item isn’t compliant by April 1, 2009, it has to come off the web. So I’ve been tasked with fixing all of these older documents (there are approximately 500 items that need to be fixed. And that’s only on the site I work on. Eventually there will be a deadline for all sites, and there are probably millions of documents that need remediation within the government.). Unfortunately, some of the older PDFs and other files cannot be fixed because they were created in a time before assistive technology existed. These items, many still relevant, will either need to be removed from the web or entirely recreated.

Part of the reason behind 508 compliance is creating equal access to items for the 10 percent of people that have an impairment of some kind. But this doesn’t make sense to me. Some of the items I can’t fix have to be removed from the web because 10 percent of people can’t use them. What about the other 90 percent? It doesn’t seem like the rules created here make sense. Why should 90 percent of the population not have access to something because the other 10 percent can’t use it?

Someone please explain how these non-compliant documents, already created with tax payer money, should accessible to no one because 10 percent of the population can’t use it.

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8 Responses to Meeting Section 508 Standards

  1. Mike Busch says:

    Sounds like the government hard at work, and the _exact_ reason I have a good amount of disdain for special interests. However, I do see this as progress towards an ultimate goal of accessiblity, but there’s a long way to go. I’m sure all those documents aren’t passing HTML/CSS validation on the Strict DOCTYPE. And I’m sure there’s a host of other problems like javascript driven links, non-use of progressive enhancement with CSS, etc. In the end though, the major thing is that you are making the documents “closer” to ideal, which is a major step up from where they were. There is no need to tear down old content; unless it is outdated or irrelevant.

  2. John says:

    I think progress is good, but we shouldn’t remove things because we can’t make them compliant. We are catering to the few instead of the many, and in this case it helps no one.

    I think someone thinks that there is a simple fix for this problem, when it is really complicated.

  3. Adam says:

    As long as you get the em-dashes right, everything will be ok.

  4. Xdm says:

    Like I said, I think it will be easier and cheaper to go find the people who can’t see and read them the documents personally.

  5. This is an interesting and worrying article. However, I have tried to do some research and I cannot find out where the April 1 deadline comes from or the need to apply accessibility criteria to archival information.
    Can someone give me a link to the relevant part of the legislation?

  6. John says:

    Hey Peter,

    It’s not all branches, but the specific office I work with. As a contractor, I’m not sure what the entire department is forced to do as I’m not privileged to that information. Additionally, I’m not sure this is announcement you would find widely distributed as everything since the 1998 disabilities act was passed should meet with compliance standards, but very few items actually meet compliance.

    And don’t get me started on the woefully outdated requirements. I am aware that new standards are constantly being created to deal with technology that didn’t exist in 1998, but not having clear guidelines now may force us to return to documents we assumed were compliant when posted.

    A good place to see what I have to follow is at http://www.hhs.gov/web. This site is really helpful, but its guidelines can be interpreted many ways. Since everyone reads the guidelines differently, we frequently have inter-departmental disputes as to what is compliant. I frequently come across new challenges in the 508 arena that I am not sure how to address (Asian language PDFs are a huge problem. I don’t have the resources to have someone go through these documents and add tags and a structure in the native language. Even if I found a person that speaks one of these languages, they probably wouldn’t know how to remediate a PDF).

    I’m going to see if I can track down any information and post it here for you. I learned this information from an internal e-mail. I’m somewhat hesitant to share it, so I’ll see if I can find the official document.

  7. I am not at all convinced that section 508 says that archive material has to be compliant. If it does I am not sure it would recommend removing the information just because it does not comply. I think the information should be left up and converted as and when a request is made for the information in the right format.
    Removing documents if they include useful information seems of no benefit to people with disabilities. What happens if the document has some information that could be of use to a specific disabled person? If it has been removed then they will never know, if it is there they may not be able to access it directly but at least they can access it indirectly either through a third party reading it to them or by requesting, and receiving, an accessible version.
    I would suggest that only documents that are no use to anyone, not even historians, are removed.

  8. John says:

    I’ve gone through the sites and removed items with outdated information, but we have a lot of things from pre-508 days that I need to fix. I don’t make the rules, I just follow ’em!

    And section 508 says that all electronic documents must be compliant for equal access. That means anything stored electronically must be compliant.

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