What is Section 508?

Written by Sally White

Josh is a 29-year-old Army veteran. While serving in Afghanistan, he had the misfortune to be in a convoy that was hit by a crude roadside bomb. He and his fellow servicemen survived the attack, but Josh was blinded in both eyes by flying shrapnel.

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United States Section 508

Josh is glad to be back at home with his wife and two young children, but he worries how he’ll be able to pay the mortgage and save for his children’s education. Other than the loss of his vision, his health is good and he has a long working life ahead of him. Before the war, Josh was an environmental scientist. Now he’s not sure what he can do for employment, but he would like to work in an analytical capacity if only he could access the reports he needs.

Margaret is a 72-year-old retired professor living in Montana. Due to macular degeneration, she can no longer read the books and magazines she once enjoyed. With the advent of audio books, though, she can still listen to her favorites. Margaret recently heard that a major power company is planning to build a high-voltage transmission line that will traverse her county. She wants to know more so that she can understand the alternatives and attend the public hearings. Without access to the public documents, though, she won’t be able to learn about the project.

Trent is a 37-year-old civil engineer. Two summers ago he took a group of kids camping over the Fourth of July weekend. While shooting off fireworks around the campfire, one of the cherry bombs exploded too close to Trent. As a result, he lost the sight in one eye and the fingers on his right hand. He still has vision in one eye, but he is color blind.

Now imagine yourself sitting at your desk. You can see. You can hear. You have all of your fingers and can manipulate a mouse. With a few steps, you have the ability to help Josh embark on a new career, allow Margaret to learn about the project in her area, and get Trent back to work. How? By preparing documents that can be read to them electronically.

With some advance planning on the part of document authors, and some additional steps in document preparation, Josh, Margaret, and Trent will all be able to listen to the materials they need to help them achieve their goals. Their computers are equipped with screen readers that can read to them. But for the computer’s assistive technology to properly read the material, the content must be properly prepared, or tagged.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1998 to require electronic technology used by the government to be accessible to everyone, including those with hearing, visual, and other disabilities. Although the law has been in effect for some time, because of poor understanding, limited time and funds for compliance, lack of enforcement, and other issues, many agencies have only partially complied with accessibility laws.

However, several court cases are being settled in favor of the law being enforced and, increasingly, 508 compliance requirements are being implemented. The law states that individuals with disabilities who are seeking information or services from a federal agency must have access to all information and data comparable to the access provided to individuals without disabilities. The law is now also being applied to many commercial businesses so that users have access to their websites.

Nearly everyone is familiar with some aspect of accessibility. We have all seen the closed captioning feature on television, which displays the audio portion of a program as text along the bottom of the screen so that a user can read, rather than listen to, the words. Another common accessible technology is text telephone, also known as TTY (teletype device) or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), which allows deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate by typing rather than speaking. Thanks to assistive screen-reading devices, people with vision problems now have access to a new world via their computers. Web pages and documents can be accessed and listened to via these devices; however, the device can only accurately read information that has been properly prepared.

To understand what the visually impaired and blind experience while accessing information via their computers, listen to a document or page of written text that you’ve prepared. An assistive screen reading device is available in Adobe Acrobat. Open your document as a pdf. Select View > Read Out Loud. It doesn’t take long to realize that we usually take for granted that which we can see. Especially listen to elements in your document that were created specifically for visual intake, such as graphics and tables. The screen reader will methodically read each and every word of a table, but, the words will be meaningless to the listener unless the information is properly structured. Also, to assist visually impaired and color blind users, information that is conveyed only through color must be made available in another format (usually as black and white or patterns). These requirements change the way we have been taught to present information – now we need to either use fewer figures and tables or be prepared to spend the time and money to tag the content with alternate text to make it accessible.

Each page that is created as a result of funding from the U.S. government will be required to meet federal accessibility criteria. The most efficient means of creating compliant documents is to consistently follow established standards so that text makes sense not only to those who can see it, but also to those who listen to it.

Documents are put into compliance with software packages already commonly used (Microsoft products and Adobe Acrobat). As more agencies begin to require compliance, appropriate alternate text must be prepared to describe figures, maps, graphics, charts, and other elements.

More information is available through the STC AccessAbility SIG (Special Interest Group) website (www.stc-access.org) and the United States Section 508 website (www.section508.gov).

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, more than 10 percent of adult Americans (21.1 million) are blind, color blind, or otherwise visually impaired. With an aging population, these numbers are certain to rise.

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STC AccessAbility SIG


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