Musings: Accessibility, Section 508, is it really about accessibility?

Several years ago when I was working on the National Constitution Center project I was told that since we were partially funded by federal funds, we were to follow the federal administration requirements of Circular A-110 when purchasing any product or service on behalf of the NCC.

As I was not familiar with A-110 I asked for a copy of the guidelines. When handed a document that was over 100 pages, I knew this was not going to be easy. Spending federal dollars is something I take seriously. But what was frustrating is that in order to ensure compliance there were purchases that cost us more in legal fees than the actual cost of the product purchased. It shouldn't be that complicated.

Luckily, Section 508 is very simple as it relates to websites and web based applications, or so it would seem. The problem is that most people have no real understanding of what it all means and the true intent of the ADA, accessibility for people with disabilities, is lost in the interpretations.

When speaking to clients, or reading articles on the subject, many people believe Section 508 is about being blind. Blindness is only one disability covered by the ADA and Section 508.

Section 508 is about being blind

But let's say you are a person who is blind and use assistive technology to access the Internet. If you are, you may say Section 508 is about "text alternatives". [Sub-section 1194.22 (a)] As a content provider or a designer, what does that mean?

Most of the people who are blind that I know or have worked with have told me that, for the most part, they are not the least bit interested in text alternatives. If they can't see it anyway, why do they care what's there? People who are blind don't visit websites to see pretty pictures, they visit websites to get information.

And when you get right down to it, most graphics on a website, or on a print piece for that matter, are directed to the sighted. Graphics are extremely important in design as they relate to image recognition. Imagine a FedEx website designed in green and red. Wouldn't work. Logo's, corporate (or team) colors, font types, taglines and related elements are critical to imagine recognition.

In designing a website, if you use text alternatives for every graphic, photo or branding related item, the person who is blind is inundated with information that is meaningless making it more difficult for them to find the content, or information they need.

It is my opinion that using text alternatives is not the answer. It is my opinion that if there is a graphic or image on the page that impacts the message of the page, or is a visual focal point of the page, a text alterative within the html markup, or a description of the graphic and its purpose as part of the content of the page makes the page Section 508 compliant. Descriptions of every bullet point, underline and graphic, which would be the literal definition of 1194.22 (a) is nothing more that an impediment to accessing the content of the page to people who are blind.

Section 508 is not about html tables

The other day I was with a client who kept trying to convince me that data cells only need a header [Sub-section 1194.22 (g)] to be Section 508 compliant. They were convinced that a cell in a table that had data and a header is Section 508 compliant. Not true.

The problem is a data cell, as it is described in Section 508, is referring to a table of information, like a spreadsheet, not columns that are forced in a design using html table markup. But you would only understand this if you were familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.

If you haven't already, visit the guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. It makes the A-110 circular look easy.

There is no one right way

I could go on with more examples, but let me just say this - there is no one right way to be Section 508 compliant.

As I always say to my clients, the first step is to know your audience. How you would build a website whose audience is primarily blind, is much different than how you would build a website who audience is primarily deaf or hard of hearing and so on.

Just as if you were constructing a building to be an apartment complex, an office building, high rise, museum, private club or private home, you would consider the needs of the individuals using the structure while meeting the basic requirements as defined by ADA guidelines; so should you consider the needs of the individuals visiting your website while meeting the requirements of Section 508.

Section 508 is about people with disabilities

The key to Section 508 compliance is working with a Section 508 compliance advisor who has experience working with people with disabilities, is familiar with assistive technology, understands website technology and has experience building websites to be accessible to people with disabilities.

And before you publish your site or release your product, have it tested by real people with disabilities.

-Nancy Massey

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Nancy Massey
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