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CHIPS Articles: Why should I comply with Section 508?

Why should I comply with Section 508?
By Mark Williams - October-December 2001
Recently, I overheard some folks discussing their current assignment to adapt Microsoft PowerPoint Presentations on their Web site for compliance under Section 508. Most of the conversations went something like this, "What can I do to get around the requirements of Section 508? After all, it's going to take an awful lot of work to make what we do is compliant with Section 508. They also questioned whether anyone even looks at the stuff on their Web site.

I'd like to share what I said to them in response to their hoping to get around Section 508. First what is important to remember is that Section 508 is the law. To try to get around it—is unthinkable! Since the signing of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act into law in August 1998, and the Access Board [an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities] publication of the final rule setting forth the electronic and information technology (EIT) standards in December 2000, many Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense have been busy working toward compliance. The Access Board publication set a compliance date of June 21, 2001.

Section 508 is designed to make life better for everyone. Even the people that don't think they need it. How many of you have used the cutout ramps on sidewalks while bicycling? How many of you have taken materials from your office to your car using a hand truck pushed facilitated by a wheelchair ramp? Those are just two options that wouldn't be there today if it wasn't for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Did you say that you don't have a disability, so the ramps weren't built for you? But they did make your life easier even though they weren't intended for you. And for the people they were intended for, well, they make life livable.

You may not believe it, but Section 508 is going to benefit everyone, whether you have a disability or not. I'm a Webmaster responsible for more than 4,000 Web pages. In revising my Web site, I'm finally able to write to standards. It's so much of a relief to be able to write just to the standard and not worry how things look in one browser versus another—it's up to the browsers to interpret the data correctly. The companies that are creating screen readers are using those exact same standards in their program. If I write code so that one sentence is emphasized—then I have written to the standard.

Different browsers/readers may handle showing the emphasis slightly differently, but the person accessing the site will be able to understand that the text is emphasized regardless of the way the browser/reader indicates emphasized text. One visual browser may bold it, another italicize it. One screen reader may pronounce it louder another may pause after it. It doesn't matter to me, as long as it's emphasized. But if I didn't code to the standard and I simply chose to use a larger font size for emphasis for the sighted user, then the screen readers don't do anything special with it and my message will be lost—perhaps to a large portion of my audience.

If we don't provide the information to the general public and the Federal workforce in a manner we all can use, aren't we falling short of our own mission? Ask yourself—Who's going to be using this information? Why am I providing it in the first place? If you need to provide information to the general public as required by your command's mission/function, then wouldn't you be failing in your mission if you didn't provide the information in a way that was useable by your co-workers and everyone that might come in contact with it?

Mark Williams is a Computer Specialist and Webmaster in the DON Information Technology Umbrella Program.We are proud to be Section 508 compliant.

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