1.6/06  TheCounter.com Professional Edition (re:Section 508 eff 6/21)

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TheCounter.com Professional Edition
Vol. 2 Number 23
June 6, 2001


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Are You 508-Compliant?
By Alexis D. Gutzman

On June 21, 2001, the Section 508 Federal Acquisition Regulation goes into effect. Do you need to comply? Is your site ready? Section 508 potentially will be as disruptive and expensive for businesses as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been. It will also make the Web more accessible to millions of Americans and others who have been trying to navigate it using text-synthesizing software. Like many federal regulations, this is probably just phase one of a two-phase rollout of regulation. Look for the federal government to expand the regulation to include businesses within the next five years. Or perhaps, businesses will be included under the "Bob Dole Memorial Americans with Disabilities Act."

Section 508 requires that federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. This is accomplished by permitting all interactions with the software by keyboard. The mouse - something I've never liked - becomes optional. Everything the software needs to do will be doable by key combinations with the tab key to navigate - the way that many savvy Web veterans navigate today. I suppose this means that Netscape Navigator will finally permit tabbing to the submit key or even just hitting enter on the keyboard to submit a form, the way Internet Explorer has since 1997.

Any organization that takes federal money will have to comply unless doing so represents an undue burden - the definition of which typically has to be hammered out in court between your trial lawyer and that of the person suing you.

To make your site Section 508 compliant, you need to make some minor changes to the HTML code that browsers load when they receive your page. These changes make images come alive to text-synthesizing software. Even if your business is not covered by Section 508, you'll find the following tips and resources helpful if your business sees much traffic from older folks or the visually impaired - for example, nursing homes, retirement communities, cruises, vision-care providers, etc.

What You Can Do
When you get done reading this, click over to the W3C's HTML Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Initiative Guidelines (see the Resources section at the end of this column). There you will find the nitty-gritty details of what code to change and how. I'll give you the executive summary:

1) Don't use tables to format your page. Use cascading style sheets (CSS), instead. CSS doesn't work very well for anyone using version 3 browsers or earlier, but that is a small and decreasing proportion of the population (less than one percent as of May 2001). Most people are using Internet Explorer 5 (over 70 percent) that came with their new $700 computers. Text-synthesizing software has trouble with pages that are formatted with tables (most Web pages still are). Tabbing from link to link is not very intuitive when the page is formatted with tables. Search engines also prefer non-table-formatted pages.

2) Make sure all of your images - whether they are used as bullets or image maps to provide navigation or to show stock prices - have descriptive text in the alt or longdesc attributes. This is actually more complicated than it seems, since many sites have charts and graphs that are generated on-the-fly from real-time data. Even these charts need to have useful descriptive text. "Stock price over time" is simply not adequate. See the resources section below for an excellent tool that generates descriptive text for the charts and graphs it creates in real time.

3) Make sure you can get to every link and every field on every page using only the tab key and that visitors can submit your forms using the enter key.

The official Section 508 Web site (http://www.section508.gov/). Point your lawyer here if you think you are required to be in compliance.

The W3C (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10-TECHS/) recommendations for making your site accessible. Point your developers here, once you get done arguing with them about why they need to use CSS, where they'll find techniques for Web content accessibility from the W3C.

If your site uses real-time data, as many government sites and sites that need to be accessed by government employees do, then you need to think in terms of a commercial product that will deliver both the chart and the descriptive text. The EPA and many businesses in this predicament are using Corda's PopChart [D]. You can read more about what Corda offers in Making Data Compelling
(http://ecommerce.internet.com/solutions/ebusiness/article/0,1467,7651_5 43761,00.html).

About the Author:

Alexis D. Gutzman is an author, speaker, and consultant on e-business and e-commerce topics. Her most recent book, The E-commerce Arsenal: 12 Technologies You Need to Prevail in the Digital Arena, was named one of the 30 best business books of this year. For more information on her upcoming speaking engagements, please contact her directly at agutzman@internet.com.
Reprinted from ECommerce Guide

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