It’s easy to feel like no one is policing the Internet, so therefore no rules apply, but guess what – they do. Case in point: Web accessibility and Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act .
8.5% of the population has a disability – including visual, audio, motor and cognitive impairments – that affects their computer use. To understand how portions of the Web may or may not be accessible to this population install a developer toolbar and turn off all styles (CSS) and images within your browser. It’s quite a different experience, no?
See the above example of a properly accessible webpage. On the left: How the page www.loseyourexcuse.gov/parents looks to an average Web user. On the right: How the same page would look to a user dependant on a screen reader.
Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act outlines standards for the means by which Web content is to be made accessible to all types of users. Online properties of the federal government must adhere to these standards as a matter of law. However, as a matter of good practice, other organizations should likewise adhere to such standards.
And while not legislatively mandated to follow a particular set of guidelines, non-government entities aren’t exactly immune to the will of the law either. The retailer Target was compelled to make changes to its e-commerce website – and pay settlement costs – as the result of a disability claim.
While its purpose is abundantly clear, unfortunately, adherence to Section 508 can become terribly murky. By virtue of the legislative process, language is hugely subject to interpretation, and there are loopholes. And it should be noted that Section 508 was finalized in 2001 (albeit updates are currently in draft form); the majority of the Web in those days was straight HTML (which is easy-peasy to make accessible), unlike the more immersive and media-rich Web to which we’ve since become accustomed.
So, yes there are challenges to designing a website that is in accordance with the standards of Section 508, however it is to one’s advantage to meet the intent, if not the letter of the law. In addition to being inclusive of all users, the same techniques which make a site highly accessible also benefit search engine optimization (SEO), usability, and browser compatibility to name a few – all good things in terms of website success.
Resources to explore:
1. For the technical and legal wonks: Read Section 508. It’s a real page-scroller!!
2. Check out WebAIM: the foremost advocate for Web accessibility and provider of resources on the topic.
3. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG):
These are guidelines of The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community with the mission of developing Web standards. They tend to be more in line with the evolutionary nature of Web technology. Rather than prescribing specific tactics (images must contain tags), they are principal-based and suggest a range of tactics to make content accessible. For the most part, a site developed to these standards will in turn also be Section 508 compliant (but since there is always that room for interpretation, this can’t be stated definitively).