A checkup for Section 508

By Mike Paciello
Special to GCN

How much progress have we really seen on Section 508?

The Section 508 electronic and IT accessibility amendment is the single most influential disability mandate since the Americans with Disabilities Act came into law in 1990.

But how much has changed since Section 508’s inception in June 2001? 

We find it varies widely—from agencies that have embraced the spirit of the mandate to those that barely measure up.

Certainly, Section 508 has contributed to an overall increased awareness of the issue. Consider: 

  • Federal agencies are developing strict internal processes and educating procurement personnel to ensure vendor compliance.
  • Twenty-one states have adopted Section 508 procurement standards in part or in whole.
  • Industry monoliths including General Electric Co., Oracle Corp., and Science Applications International Corp. develop, implement and promote accessibility as corporate policy.
  • International initiatives and laws including Canada’s Common Look & Feel, the European Union Year of People with Disabilities and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act enforce technology accessibility.
  • Standards bodies including the American National Standards Institute, Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and International Standards Organization all have activities involving the development of accessibility technical standards.

Some government agencies including the Social Security Administration and Education and Veterans Affairs Departments have developed reputations for being “508 sticklers.”

These agencies have embraced the spirit of Section 508 as well as the legal requirements; they have developed a strong set of best practices related to all facets of technology accessibility.

Additionally, internal federal operations such as the General Services Administration’s Buy Accessible program, the Interagency Software Developers for 508 collaborative and the 508 Universe educational awareness program are promising efforts designed to build both employee and vendor awareness.

While some agencies have made significant progress, many—and perhaps a majority—have done little to truly make technology accessible to all.

In many cases, this shortfall isn’t deliberate. Agencies are often constrained by a lack of internal expertise and understanding of the issues involved.

While accessibility testing tools such as Bobby are helpful, they primarily evaluate coding constructs. It’s equally important to evaluate user interfaces and navigation, as well as testing for compatibility with generally used assistive technology products.

Moreover, to ensure those with disabilities can actually use technology, usability testing must be done.

The lack of consistent enforcement is an equally critical factor. Currently, there is no watchdog organization that holds vendors and agencies accountable to the Section 508 standards.

Agencies perform periodic self-assessments, but these are without consequence. Nor is there a mechanism to quantify and objectively assess the level of accessibility achieved.

Couple this with a “do just enough to get by” attitude by many IT vendors, and it is easy to understand why a large portion of federally procured technology is still not optimally usable by federal employees and citizens with disabilities.

The United Kingdom’s Disability Rights Commission just issued a report that exposed the inaccessibility of Web sites, Web-based services and applications serving the country’s citizens. The commission found that 81 percent of the websites surveyed did not meet minimal accessibility requirements.

GSA or the Justice Department would reach similar conclusions if either agency embarked on such an evaluation.

Mike Paciello, author of “Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities,” is president and founder of The Paciello Group, which helps agencies, vendors, corporations and educational institutions make their technology accessible to all.

More news on related topics:Management, New Products / Technology, Section 508

Online Extra: A checkup for Section 508

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