universal web design

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A survey of Web accessibility and usability

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabiliation Act of 1973 was designed prior to the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, yet it still recognized the need to establish guidelines for access to electronic equipment and media. Motivated in part by the explosion of the Web, the U.S. Congress amended Section 508 to extend it to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology, by definition, places individuals with impairments on an unequal playing field with regards to obtaining and using data. The amended Section 508 was thereby enacted to eliminate these barriers and force agencies give users with disabilities -- both employees and members of the public -- means of access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.

Table of contents:

  1. Original Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  2. Section 508 Amendment of 1998, as signed by President Clinton
  3. Summary of Section 508 Standards
  4. Additional Resources

Key point:
At least one means of interacting with a system, tool, application, or piece of equipment must be provided for users that are blind, visually impaired (<20/70), deaf, hearing impaired, speech impaired, and physically impaired.

Section 508, Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Sec. 508. Electronic Equipment Accessibility

[508](a)(1) The Secretary, through the Director of National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administrator of General Services, in consultation with the electronics industry, shall develop and establish guidelines for electronic equipment accessibility designed to insure that individuals with handicaps may use electronic office equipment with or without special peripherals.

[508-a](2) The guidelines established pursuant to paragraph (1) shall be applicable with respect to electronic equipment, whether purchased or leased.

[508-a](3) The initial guidelines shall be established not later than October 1, 1987, and shall be periodically revised by the Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administrator of General Services in Consultation with the electronics industry and the Interagency Committee for Computer Support of Handicapped Employees; and as technologies advance or change.

[508](b) Beginning after September 30, 1988, the Administrator of General Services shall adopt guidelines for electronic equipment accessibility established under subsection (a) for Federal procurement of electronic equipment. Each agency shall comply with the guidelines adopted under this subsection.

[508](c) For the purpose of this section, the term "special peripherals"means a special needs aid that provides access to electronic equipment that is otherwise inaccessible to an individual with handicaps.

The U.S. government will work with the electronics industry to promote the design of electronic equipment that can be used in equivalent manners (or with the aid of special peripheral equipment that provides access) by individuals with and without disabilities. In other words, businesses and government agencies may be accused of discrimination if users are denied access to equipment due to a handicap.

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Section 508 Amendment, 1998


Amended on August 7, 1998, by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Section 508 now applies more strenuous requirements on U.S. agencies regarding accessibility to both Electronic and Information technologies. Section 508.1.a is reproduced below, as it establishes the scope of the amendment. A discussion of the other clauses follows.

Sec. 508. Electronic and Information Technology



(A) DEVELOPMENT, PROCUREMENT, MAINTENANCE, OR USE OF ELECTRONIC AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY. -- When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency, including the United States Postal Service, shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology --

(i) individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities; and

(ii) individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities.

(B) ALTERNATIVE MEANS EFFORTS.--When development, procurement, maintenance, or use of electronic and information technology that meets the standards published by the Access Board under paragraph (2) would impose an undue burden, the Federal department or agency shall provide individuals with disabilities covered by paragraph (1) with the information and data involved by an alternative means of access that allows the individual to use the information and data.

In sum,
An agency must provide universally-accessible means of using any kind of information media to Federal employees and members of the public; if it cannot be achieved, alternative means of access must be provided.

Subsequent Clauses of Amendment

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Summary of Section 508 Standards

Subsequent to the passing of the amendment, the Access Board prepared a set of broad standards and performance criteria for implementing Section 508. These requirements for

require Federal agencies both to develop fully accessible technologies or purchase assistive technologies from outside vendors. A summary of the major requirements -- with an in-depth discussion of the Web requirements -- is provided below; the official standards document can be found at the Section 508 website.

Software applications and operating systems

Web-based information and applications

The following standards were pulled directly from the Section 508 Standards page to provide optimal coverage (emphasis added to aid in scanning).

  1. A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).
  2. Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
  3. Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
  4. Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
  5. Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
  6. Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
  7. Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
  8. Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
  9. Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
  10. Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
  11. A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
  12. When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
  13. When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with 1194.21(a) through (l).
  14. When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
  15. A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
  16. When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The W3C has transformed these standards into a set of accessibility checkpoints that will help organizations and Web developers make old sites accessible (retroactively) as well as design future sites that will comply with Section 508. For a discussion of these guidelines, visit the WCAG 1.0 section of this site.

Telecommunications products

Video and multimedia products

Self contained, closed products

Self contained products refer to those that have embedded softare and are designed in such a way that attaching assistive technology is not a readily-available option. Examples include informational kiosks, copiers, printers, calculators, and fax machines.

Desktop and portable computers

All means of input (controls, keys, touch screens, etc.) must comply with relevant criteria stated in the previous sections. Additionally, when biometric forms of user identification or control are used, an alternative form of identification or activation, which does not require the user to possess particular biological characteristics, shall also be provided.

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Additional Resources

Section 508: Government-run informational page on Section 508, including "508 & You," "508 Law," "508 Training," and other resources.

1998 Amendment to Section 508: Reproduction of the entire amendment (part of the Section 508 page listed above).

Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Reproduction of the (hard-to-find) Rehabilitation Act, Section V. Scroll to the bottom of the page for Section 508.

Access Board: The Access Board is an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. It operates with about 30 staff and a governing board of representatives from Federal departments and public members appointed by the President.

Web Accessibility for Section 508: A web tutorial developed by Jim Thatcher (former employee of IBM who helped design IBM Home Page Reader and other accessibility tools).

Government Computer News: Smooth the bumpy road to 508 compliance. An article about the problems businesses and agencies are facing with fixing their websites.

Usable Net - 508 Accessibility Suites: Offering easy-to-use software tools (such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver plug-ins) that automate website usability and accessibility repair and testing.

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Author: Greg Lanier
This site was originally created as a course project for Comp190 Enabling Technologies, given by Professor Gary Bishop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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