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.