According to the Rehabilitation Act, issued in 1973, discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited, these individuals should be included in society, employed and provided access to the main social possibilities. Amendment to this Act, made in 1998, added Section 508 covering the issues of providing access to information and electronic technologies to people with disabilities. In addition, Section 508 describes accessibility standards with regard to technology and related products. Originally, these standards were created for the agencies of federal government, but certain local agencies as well as state legislatures have adopted the requirements for compliance with Section 508. According to this document, government agencies should follow accessibility guidelines with regard to procurement of information services and technology-based products (Section 508, 1998). There are special incentives included in Section 508 referring to universal design, or accessible design, such as technical assistance, aid compliance and federal agency mandates (Рreiser & Оstroff, 2001). Section 508 also provides clear standards of compliance for all categories of information technology and electronic devices.
Impact of Section 508
The web can be considered a public place, and it should be regarded as accessible to all citizens of the country. The Department of Justice of the US defined that Internet can be considered a public accommodation place. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, there should be no discrimination against people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (АDА) requires all places of “public accommodation and services available therein” (Section 508, 1998) to be accessible. Although Section 508 does not require compliance from private web sites (if they are not funded by federal agencies or haven’t concluded a federal contract), it is still not correct to ignore this regulation. Such attitude can be compared to not providing the services accessible for handicaps in public places.
The impact of Section 508 on companies contracted or funded by federal agencies is very significant because if these organizations do not comply with ADA, this will be considered a violation of federal laws. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, about 10% of the population have impaired hearing or are deaf, 4% of citizens have visual problems which cannot be corrected by glasses, and 0.4% people are legally blind (Thatcher, 2006). Businesses shouldn’t just pay attention to compliance with Section 508 because it is legal regulation, they should comply because they should not prohibit people from using their website just because they are disabled in some sense. For example, among accessibility standards of Section 508 there are following regulations (Section 508, 1998):
1) Video descriptors for multimedia products should be captioned and are required to have toggle functions
2) Deaf or hard-hearing persons should be provided access to the products, using an appropriate technology for hearing aids, facilitated listening devices and TTYs
3) Web graphics should have text labels for people with visual impairment, and it should be available for use with special screen readers or Braille displays
4) Accessibility for people with visual impairments should be provided via usage of special keyboard navigation
Advance of technology results in changes of standards and techniques mentioned in Section 508 compliance requirements. For testing compliance with these standards, various techniques have been developed. It can be recommended to test web pages with images turned off, with larger fonts and using different color schemes, in order to see what people with disabilities might experience (Рreiser & Оstroff, 2001). It should also be ensured that the web site can be accessed using the keyboard only, since using a mouse might not be possible or convenient for people with disabilities. For such people, functionality of a keyboard is critical in the process when using the Internet. In order to test how the web page would sound in audio variant it would be appropriate to provide a screen reader for download and testing the correctness of the audio content (Рreiser & Оstroff, 2001). It is most likely that web developers and QА professionals are strongly affected by Section 508.
Section 508 is not directed to promoting universal accessibility of technology and information. This legislation is rather aimed at promoting procedures and technologies which are compatible with special equipment for adaptation of people with disabilities when such adaptations are required. For example, if a Federal agency decides to purchase computer monitors, it is not required to buy special screen enlargers for each device. At the same time, the agency does need to buy monitors compatible with such screen enlargers. Analogously, web sites ordered by the Federal government and developed under federal contracts are not obliged to incorporate audible components for vision-impaired users, but these web sites should be compatible with generally accepted screen reading programs and should be developed in order to provide the possibility for users with disabilities to navigate the web site using voice commands.
One more nuance of Section 508 that a lot of ІT providers and contractors may not know that governmental websites also should comply with Section 508 standards (Thatcher, 2006). This implies that contractors working for federal agencies engaged in design or maintaining federal websites should pay a lot of attention to accessibility compliance. For any web site which is developed for the United States Government the Website Accessibility Compliance standards should be met as determined by the USGА (Thatcher, 2006). Applications and other software created for federal web sites should be tested with regard to Website Accessibility Compliance. For the companies with the standards of Section 508 for software and web sites it would be not possible to get federal contracts for designing websites or other software. Also, these companies will not be allowed to work as subcontractors for the majority of federal contractors. Hence, most software companies and internet companies that would like to work for the government should pay attention to Section 508 (Thatcher, 2006). If these companies don’t comply with these regulations, they would not be able to get or continue federal contracts.
The application of the standards defined by Section 508 is technically related to the sector of federal agencies and, strictly speaking, does not require compliance by state agencies or private industry. At the same time, industry and state agencies will still be affected. With regard to private industry, vendors who would like to sell information technology to Federal agencies are now obliged to guarantee that their services and/or products can provide access for people with disabilities which is equivalent (or even wider) compared to the access other user have (Рreiser & Оstroff, 2001). Without documenting the compliance of their services and/or products, vendors currently are at risk of losing federal bids to their competitors able to provide appropriate technologies. According to Section 508, compatibility with the devices used for assistance by impaired users now should be evaluated in the process of Federal procurement, now it is the goal of the vendors to prove compliance with the regulations. Federal orders constitute the largest part of purchases of products related to electronics and information technologies, economic impact of Section 508 on vendors is impressive. State agencies are also impacted by this regulation, because the organization receiving certain types of Federal funding might be required to comply with Section 508 regulations (Thatcher, 2006). Moreover, there is a great number of state agencies that have voluntarily chosen to develop their own initiatives with regard to accessibility on the basis of Section 508.
Information technologies impacted by Section 508 can be described as a broad category including any equipment used in the development, duplication of conversation of information/data, or related to any technology-related service. This category includes computer systems and software, various telecommunication products (e.g. telephones, information kiosks and transaction machines) as well as office equipment like copiers and fax machines (Watrall & Siarto, 2009). It also includes videotapes and different multimedia presentations and the Section certainly affects the websites ordered and developed on behalf of federal agencies. Support and documentation for any of the above-mentioned technologies is also mentioned in the requirements. Thus, a private company dealing with provision of help desk services or seat management must ensure that the services are able to address the needs of users with disabilities in case of signing a contract with a federal agency.
It should be noted that rules of Section 508 cover only services and systems provided to and sold to the US government and intended for the use of federal employees or available for the general public. Thus, with regard to the internal systems used by the contractor or contractor’s corporate website, there are no requirements for compliance with Section 508 standards (Thatcher, 2006), in case these system are not part of the contract’s deliverables.
The equipment which is used by the contractor is not connected with the actual contract by rules (e.g. authoring tools aimed at creating software programs, web sites etc.) and is not regulated by the legislation (Рreiser & Оstroff, 2001).
Thus, organizations affected by the Section 508 include large and small businesses as well as government agencies and offices. Covered entities under the АDА should provide appropriate means of communication, and these requirements do not depend on the type of communication such as printed media, computerized media, Internet, or audio media. “Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications” (Jacko, 2007) through accessible means as well.
Employers are also affected by Section 508. If a law firm has 15 employees or more, this company is considered an “employer” under АDА Title (Watrall & Siarto, 2009). If the company has an employee with a disability protected according to ADA, and using the internet or intranet facilities of the company is a part or essential function of his/her job, the company should provide reasonable accommodation. The employee can request for changes of the company’s web site or internal software, for example. Since law firms are classified as “public accommodations” under ADA (Title ІІІ), software of web site of a law firm can be regarded as “activity” or “program” according to Title III (Section 508, 1998).
When individuals with disability are trying to access a certain website, they have the same rights for having equal access as have any other society members. Even entities and organizations that are not covered by АDА need to address accessible Web design, because technologies tend to change, and regulations should be adapted, as well.
However, currently there are major problems with website accessibility. Websites that can be easily accessed by non-disabled people might create significant obstacles for people with disabilities, or access for such people may not be possible at all. For example, a beautiful new law firm site created by a top designer may be not accessible by someone navigating using the means of screen reading; this is especially difficult for people with blind or low vision or with a certain learning disability. The usage of frames or drop-down Java menus on the site may create obstacles for using voice command software (Watrall & Siarto, 2009). Streaming online audio courses or video conferences can be inaccessible for deaf people since they would not be able to hear them.
However, АDА compliance shouldn’t be the only reason for the companies to make their sites fully accessible. Expert opinion states that universal design benefits the whole society (Watrall & Siarto, 2009). As the popularity of the Internet grows and the web matures, the webmasters cannot be sure that their visitors have all necessary features such as latest browser versions, software installed and other facilities (Jacko, 2007). Thus, universal web design will also ensure compatibility with older software and browsers, and will in general guarantee backwards compatibility. In addition, design is not simply beneficial for older technologies. Many new technologies and methods of accessing the web are enhanced due to applying the principles of universal design. The closer different organization and firms design their sites in accordance with HTML standards, the greater accessibility will be provided for all people and especially for people with disabilities (Jacko, 2007).
Thus, providing accessibility for individuals with disabilities is a tendency that will benefit everyone. Examples of wider applications of accessibility include slow dial-up connection (where people disable graphics), drivers surfing the web and medical professionals wanting to access the Web in the process of performing a surgery. In the future, it can be expected that universal access will reach internet kiosks, e-books and all information technologies will be accessible to everyone.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1998 by the Congress, in order to require Federal agencies to grant access to their resources to people with disabilities (Jacko, 2007). Despite the fact that Section 508 is obligatory for Federal agencies only, its regulations should be followed by all businesses because the lack of access decreases the flow of website visitors and hinder the process of acquiring information. The purpose of Section 508 was to remove information technology obstacles, give more freedom for people with disabilities and to stimulate the growth of technologies that serve as background for accomplishing these goals.
Currently, many companies still do not comply with the standards of accessibility of Section 508. Organizations not having federal contracts are not obliged to comply with the regulations, and are not subject to consequent lawsuits. However, they are strongly recommended to follow the regulations as well because people with disabilities experience problems using their products. The utmost purpose of Section 508 is to improve the welfare of individuals with disabilities. Abiding by Section 508 can make accessing everyday resources for people with disabilities easier.
Section 508. 1998. Rehabilitation Act of l973, as amended. 29 U.S.C. § 794d.
Jacko, J. (2007). Human-computer Interaction: Interaction design and usability. Springer.
Preiser, W.F.E. & Ostroff, E. (2001). Universal design handbook. McGraw-Hill Professional.
Thatcher, J. (2006). Web accessibility: web standards and regulatory compliance. Friends of ED.
Watrall, E. & Siarto, J. (2009). Head First Web Design. O’Reilly Media, Inc.