Section 508 – The Web Accessibility Act: What is It?

September 9th, 2011 Leave a comment
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Section 508 - The Web Accessibility

The very first question many web designers ask when “Section 508” is mentioned comes back at me with this: “What the heck is Section 508?”

The reaction is understandable, given the rather understated publicity Section 508 has received in the web design world; I myself only learned of its existence a few years ago, even though the law was signed into effect by President Clinton in 1998. There hasn’t, at least in my experience, really been a push for awareness or compliance for accessibility in many private websites, and so far the vast majority of Section 508 compliant websites seem to be coming out of the government sector.

The reasons for this can be linked back to its relative obscurity, but there are other concerns here as well: due to its current status as optional, many companies may not want to take the time or money to make their websites compliant, and some designers dislike the perceived strictures imposed upon them by Section 508 compliance, believing it hinders the look and feel of their site. This is untrue, and in fact is usually the opposite; it’s usually quite possible, in most cases, to make your site compliant with very little impact on the current design!

The Section 508 checklist for accessibility, however, can be quite a hurdle to keep in mind when designing a website; there are a total of sixteen advisories in the bill, and designing with all of them in mind, especially if they don’t apply to your site, could get a little tedious! To that end, I am offering a very simple guideline that will help to make the majority of your site Section 508 compliant:

The Golden Rule: Every Non-Text Object Should Have A Text Equivalent

In simplest terms, this is the central tenet to keep in mind when creating a compliant site or revising an existing one into compliance, and also the first tenet in the actual Section 508 checklist. Many of the individual guidelines in the bill, in fact, are based around this central idea. Text readers for visually impaired visitors have no idea how to parse non-text objects; when going through your site, make sure every image has an <alt> tag describing what it is or otherwise giving the visitor the important details as to how it relates to the site. It’s permissible to have solely decorative images use a blank <alt> tag, and the choice is up to the individual website if they want the “flavor” of descriptive <alt> tags on decorative images.

Keeping this golden rule in mind, go through the entire site and make sure there is a text alternative to everything on your site, especially media or interactive applets: if your site has important information in a video, or has navigation only in Flash, make sure you have captions or a transcript for the video and a text alternative for the Flash applet. This is probably the alteration that will require the most creativity, especially if your site is extremely media or Flash-heavy.

You may be one of those folks whose site is entirely designed in Flash, and this restriction poses a rather more difficult problem for you than it might for a site that only uses a little Flash. It’s possible to make a full text-only site to be in compliance, but this is a huge hassle; the text-only site must have an obvious link to it on the front page, and it must be updated with the same frequency as the main Flash site. In this case, I can offer you a better alternative; modern browsers can use the Microsoft Active Accessibility plugin in conjunction with their modern browser, like Firefox or Internet Explorer. Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA for short) is able to read out loud text boxes and buttons with text, making a fully-Flash site not completely out of the realm of accessibility.

A full-Flash website does still pose some hurdles though: MSAA won’t work for older assistive browsers, and it won’t work for other text-based browsers like Lynx. It also won’t read out images and other non-text objects, so a creative Flash designer will have to find out how to alter their Flash applets to make them more accessible to impaired visitors.

Astute readers will point out, at this junction, that there are sixteen points in the Section 508 compliance legislation and that the point I have touched upon is only one of them. A full discussion of all sixteen would be beyond the scope of this article, which is instead aimed at providing a useful, quick guide to getting the majority of your site compliant. Many of the rules stem from the basic idea of having text alternatives to media objects, and by following that guideline in revising your site you make it much easier to review your website; in fact, depending on the complexity of the website, it may make your website fully compliant!

Section 508 Compliance: A Final Note

Once you’ve gone through and done all that, it’s time to make sure your website is compliant! There is, unfortunately, no easily automated way to do this. There are some automated tools and wizards to help you do this, like the ones listed here:

…but in the end no tool can truly do the job for you.

As a final note – sometimes, the best way to revise a design is to have other examples, and using current compliant websites as a base isn’t an awful idea at all. While the designs might not be what you’re looking for, websites like the CIA:

…are Section 508 compliant and may offer useful tips and insights on how to do the same for your website.

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