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Learning Lab

A Primer for Accessible Web Pages

by Matt Margolin and Apple Developer Connection

Section 508

On December 21, 2000, the Access Board, a committee created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), published regulations regarding the accessibility of Internet sites. These new regulations require that any web site built or procured by the Federal government must be accessible to the public in the same manner as buildings equipped with curb-cut sidewalks, braille-enhanced elevator buttons, or ramped building entrances. The Access Board's Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards put Web design best practices into law for the first time.

The new regulations became a part of government procurement as of the summer of 2001. That means that web design contracts and federal agency Internet content are subject to strict procurement guidelines and that a company can lose out on a contract if they fail to comply with these guidelines.

The Access Board has been sending out questionnaires and offering specific technical guidelines to each federal agency Web site. Though the Board has found that accessibility problems exist throughout the federal government's sites, many of the problems that they have discovered are easily fixed.

History of a Rule

Before discussing some of the HTML that will make a site compliant with government regulations, it's helpful to understand a little of the guidelines' background. The history of Section 508 demonstrates just how long the government has been involved in aiding those who cannot effectively use a graphical user interface (GUI).

The Access Board, once known as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, is an independent agency under the aegis of the FCC. Since its creation in 1975, it has supervised guideline development under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act, The Telecommunications Act of 1996, and The Architectural Barriers Act. Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires that any electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was originally added to the rehabilitation Act in 1986, a time when activists were lobbying for awareness that the new and popular GUI operating systems were actually less accessible to assistive technology than command-line interfaces.

The government set up the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC) as a part of the FCC's Access Board. As one of the committee's several members, the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Access Initiative (WAI) has been very involved in creating official guidelines for Web authoring, including the manufacture of authoring tools and user agents. The majority of the guidelines in Section 508 are taken directly from the WAI's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0.

Accessible HTML

People with disabilities most often surf the Web using assistive technologies like screen readers and braille displays. These technologies enable people with varying abilities to experience Web content through visually displayed text, tactile reading of braille displays, or hearing speech synthesis of text. The key to each of these methods is that the content all comes from text. Because of this textual foundation for assistive technologies, a simple test can be very useful in determining if a site is accessible. This test is included in a recent report from the Department of Justice regarding Federal agencies' web pages. The test is this: download a text-only browser like Lynx ( Mac, PC), and access the site to make sure that the content renders meaningfully in a text browser. If the content not only renders but is also navigable and conveys the same information, chances are that it is a universally accessible Web page.

As in the past, the government is finding that the problems of making universally designed web pages are wide-spread yet easy to fix. Of the dozen or so web design ideas mentioned in section 508, there are several common critical solutions for authoring Web pages that support assistive technologies. These solutions include <ALT> tags for images, image maps, and tables that visually organize pages.

Comment on this articleWe heard a lot about web accessibility late last year when Section 508 was big news, but not much has been stirring since. What have you heard and seen around this issue?
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Web design experience will probably show you that if the web pages you build effectively address these issues, you have gone a long way toward separating a document's content from its design. Early HTML standards and browsers treated Web documents like paper documents; one read them and looked at the pictures simultaneously. Designers used, for instance, <i> tags to italicize text. A tag like this integrates design and content yet doesn't tell a speech synthesizer what to do with the text in italics. The speech synthesizer can't tell if the author intends to indicate emphasis, a citation, or something else. A better choice is to use the <em> tag for emphasis. This tag is more meaningful and can be rendered as emphatic (in italics) by a graphical browser or spoken emphatically by a speech synthesizer.

Following recently released standards like XHTML or HTML 4.01 provides an excellent framework for separating content from design. That leaves only minor changes necessary to come into compliance with the new rules.

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