This story was updated at 12:08 p.m. Feb. 7, 2012.
The Access Board began revising the Section 508 standards governing agency technology purchases six years ago. Now, one international advisory committee and two notices of advanced rulemaking later, the organization said it is nearing the homestretch. It aims to publish proposed standards this fall.
It will be the first major revision since the standards were published in 2001.
They currently focus on making hardware, software and other websites accessible to federal employees with disabilities.
“That worked fine in 2000 but products have morphed,” said Access Board Executive Director David Capozzi. “A phone is not a phone anymore, but a phone and web interface, calendar, email client, camera and anything else you can think of.”
The revised standards will focus less on what the products are and more on what the products may do, he said.
For example, criteria will require modes of operation that people who are blind or lack fine motor control can use. Agencies would have to purchase smart phones with voice technology for users who cannot manipulate icons, he said.
The current standards “tend to be a little too short and, perhaps, not provide an ideal level of accessibility,” said former Justice Department disability-rights lawyer Ken Nakata, who is now director of accessibility practices at HiSoftware.
The proposed standards, however, “are straightforward and comprehensive,” he said.
They take advantage of developments that did not exist 12 years ago. For example, rather than having to update the standards with every major web development, the Access Board plans to reference the second version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is widely recognized as the international standard.
“Some of those standards are a bit hard to meet,” said Nakata. “When an agency could get, potentially, sued for not complying with the standards, we start to get into a gray area.” He said manufacturers may have difficulty implementing the more specific standards, but they would be a step forward for accessibility overall.
But some disability advocates say the update, while necessary, doesn’t address the real problem.
Compliance is a matter of “luck”
Census Bureau business analyst Sarah Presley has spent most of her professional life in front of a computer that she can’t see. She’s nearly blind.
In her current role, and past ones as a programmer and data analyst, she depends on software called JAWS to read aloud whatever is on her computer monitor.
But many applications, documents and websites are “iffy,” Presley said. “Even though these standards have been around for 12 years and government agencies are supposed to have been complying with them, they haven’t been,” she said. “It’s kind of luck, almost, if some applications are compliant.”
She opened a PDF that her reader said was “untagged.” It was, ironically, a 2008 Labor Department report on the hiring of disabled people.
“It looks like it’s just a really long document with no tables or headings that I can recognize because none of that was tagged,” she said. “There may be headings or tables in here that you could see but they won’t be anything that I can hear.”
Nakata said, “If people stuck to the standards, things would be better off.” The issue, he added, is, “How do we tackle this problem of making sure every federal agency really looks to the 508 standards seriously instead of just as a box to check?”
It’s not clear how seriously agencies take Section 508 compliance.
“It’s hard to get a handle on it, other than anecdotally, because the data is not there,” Capozzi said.
The Justice Department is supposed to monitor agencies’ compliance with the law in biennial reports to Congress and the President. The last time it surveyed agencies was 2003, however.
In 2010, the White House issued a memo on accountability in which it directed the Justice Department to publish progress reports starting in 2011. The department failed to do that. But it has conducted a governmentwide survey and plans to issue the results this year.
Agency officials refused a request to be interviewed for this story. But Capozzi said the law’s enforcement tool is also weak.
“The way the law is enforced is that people complain to the federal agencies,” he said. “If an employee at the Defense Department had a problem with accessing an internal website their recourse is to file the complaint with their employer.”
“There are not a lot of complaints because of the structure,” he said.
Presley has never submitted a formal complaint although she believes the Census Bureau does not fully comply with Section 508.
The agency recently switched to Lotus iNotes, a web-based email program that she could not use, she said.
“I couldn’t compose a message,” she said. The agency allowed her and other disabled employees to continue using its older, more accessible email program Lotus Notes.
“They’re not changing programs. They’re just making a solution for the few of us,” she said.
And that’s a typical reaction to Section 508 problems, she added.
“Saying that something is complaint-driven by individuals, when it’s really about systems and applications, is a problem with the way the regulations are written,” she said.
The Access Board plans to hold a public hearing in March. Presley said she may submit comments on the proposed standards.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.