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Accessibility The Clock Is Ticking

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Alan Herrell

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User since: 30 Aug 1999

Articles written: 13

(This article originally appeared on A List Apart)

The way we build sites is always changing, but a profound new change on the horizon has nothing to do with accommodating browser incompatibilities or accommodating the latest plug-in technology. In the United States, Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 is ticking like a clock ... and the days of inaccessible sites may be limited.

Section 508 of the WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF 1998, requires all United States Federal Agencies, with websites, to have them accessible to individuals with disabilities, within 24 months of enaction of this law. This will be August 7 2000.

To fully understand the impact of this law, and why this will probably change the way we build websites, from the way we write code, the tools we use, and the browsers for viewing the fruits of our labor, a short history of Accessibility legislation is needed.

A Short History Lesson

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, was the first piece of legislation designed to ensure that Federal agencies, its contractors, and its financially assisted programs and activities would provide access for Individuals with Disabilities.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into Law. This legislation enhanced the provisions of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998, signed into law on August 7, 1998, updates the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These changes are designed to strengthen current law to ensure that people with disabilities will have access to electronic and information technology (E&IT).

What the Americans with Disabilities Act did for the Brick and Mortar World, Section 508 will do for the Web.

Who does Section 508 apply to?
Section 508 applies to Federal departments and agencies. Currently it does not apply to recipients of Federal funds, and does not regulate the private sector. However, states which receive Federal funds under the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, are required by that Act to comply with Section 508.

However, to the extent that the businesses are covered by the ADA, they have the same legal obligations that they have always had.
One of the lesser known provisions of the The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the "effective communication rule"

In a Letter Dated September 9, 1996, to Sen. Tom Harkin, Deval L. Patrick, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division has this to say,

"The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires State and local governments and places of public accommodation to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden. 28 C.F.R. . 36.303; 28 C.F.R. . 35.160. Auxiliary aids include taped texts, Brailled materials, large print materials, and other methods of making visually delivered material available to people with visual impairments."

"Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet. Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well."

Lets take a look at the new rules.

What a Pixel Mechanic Needs to Know.

The Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee published its Proposed Standards on May 12, 1999.
The Final Standards will be Completed on or by February 7, 2000.

The Information for pixel mechanics are;

If the E&IT utilizes Web based information or applications... In addition to the requirements in Section 5.2 and applicable portions of Section 5.3, if the E&IT utilizes Web-based information or formats, including intranet information, HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Extensible Markup Language (XML)and similar formats, it shall meet the following requirements:

Web content shall conform with level 'Double-A', satisfying all Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints, of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0"
This is a W3C Recommendation!!

Tools for authoring Web page and sites (What-You-See-Is-What-I-Get (WYSIWIG)editors, conversion tools, image editors, site management tools) shall comply with Priorities 1 and 2 of the [ latest version at time Access Board does its regulations] of the W3C 'Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines'
This is a W3C Working Draft.

User agents shall comply with Priorities 1 and 2 of the latest version at time Access Board does its regulations] of the W3C 'User Agent Accessibility Guidelines'
This is a W3C Working Draft.

Alternate Content Delivery
If there are navigation links or tool bars at the top and left side of your page, provide a link at the top of the page (a text link or as alt-text on an image) that says "skip over navigation links," and takes the user to the main content, starting point, or headline of the page.

The Rest of Us

The Effective Communication Rule

"Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well."

Accessibility is going to be the top priority for every Federal government webmaster in the new Millennium. State and Local Governments that do not already have rules for websites, will be adopting them real soon.

If your clients provide Accessibility in the Brick and Mortar World, are they really going to want to do less on the Web? Are you going to want to do less?

Standards Real Soon

While many of us joined the Web Standards Project to urge the browser makers to Fully implement the W3C Recommendations, just to get our coding to look the same across different browsers, and to enable the advanced feature sets available with CSS1, CSS2, and XML, in the United States, the Federal Government is going to make a Big difference in how you build sites.

These regulations will use the W3C standards. This is the good news. A short peek at the Source, on any dozen Federal Websites, let's you know that currently a lot of different editor programs are being used. By tying the purchase and use to the W3C Standards, the makers of these programs, especially the (WYSIWIG)editors, have some work to do, in order to generate Valid, Accessible Code.

The Browser makers currently have a Lot of work to do.

While we are waiting for the next Mozilla build, and Redmond to build a standards compliant browser, here in the United States, Section 508 of the WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF 1998 is ticking.

Further Reading
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
W3C 'Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines'
W3C 'User Agent Accessibility Guidelines'
Accessibility: more than the right thing to do

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