A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
WTOP "Ask the CIO"
January 17, 2001
CIO Craig Luigart speaks on local radio station WTOP's "Ask the CIO" about historic new Section 508 rules which ensure equal IT access.
WTOP: Tell me about the new rules that require federal Internet sites to be accessible to the disabled.
LUIGART: Back in 1998, Section 508 was a portion of the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act. And that Act required that federal departments ensure that all employees and folks in the public that were seeking information services, especially through electronic and information technology means, had access unless is caused an undue burden to the agency. And if, in fact, it appears that there is an undue burden, an agency must provide an alternative means of access for individuals with disabilities. The Access Board, which is part of the Architectural Transportation Compliance Board, has to issue and publish standards that define electronic information technology and the functional criteria that are necessary to implement the law. A portion of the new rule standards, particularly for the Web, is designed to make sure that images are labeled with text, online forms [are] accessible, frames have descriptive titles, multi-media is closed captioned and [making] text readers to the blind and hearing impaired on the Web site itself. The technical standards provide a good, basic set of rules for designing Internet sites so that information is available to everyone. And [it's] a rule that really is timely, considering the aging and graying of America.
WTOP: There is a deadline for complying with this now, is that correct?
LUIGART: There is a deadline. It comes out of the actual law itself, which said once the rules were published, which just happened, that we have six months to be compliant. However, that said, the law actually went into effect when it was signed in 1998. But the guidance is just now coming forward in accordance with that law. It really is a law that sets practical standards of good development that most Web developers have been using for quite some time.
WTOP: This does mandate a major redesign for many agencies unless they can show an undue hardship. What would be a case of undue hardship?
LUIGART: First, let me address the question. I actually don't think it's a major redesign. It's complying with what I consider best practices development. Ensuring common fixes; common fixes would be things like images are labeled, frame maps occur, forms work properly. Undue hardship might mean a very complex, technical site that in fact is specifically used only by an engineering community or the defense community where the nature of the groups that use it may demonstrate that there isn't normally a disabled community that might access it. Say a site that was designed for Naval aviators to access weather information. Even though I am a Naval aviator, it's not likely that we have too many blind aviators trying to read weather information. It's really kind of a unique question, and one we haven't had to cross over too much.
WTOP: Sometimes government leads private industry. Sometimes private industry leads government. Will you be leading the private sector here, or is the private sector already ahead of you?
LUIGART: I guess the proper answer to that would be that the government is leading here. While the practices really represent the best development practices for a Web designer, the government recognizes with its current population of disabled folks - a national population of 54,000,000 folks that are disabled - as well as typically about three-fourths of the population has some form of disability by age 75, that this was a law whose time has come. Especially with the graying of the baby boomers.... The law helps drive some good practices across a suite of products that will be used in the private sector. From the Department of Education's viewpoint, it's a very good law as well. Because as those products become available and accessible to the federal government, it helps our disabled community across the nation as well.
WTOP: You mentioned some of the specifics. If you could again, what is the laundry list of what specifically will make sites easier for disabled people to access?
LUIGART: The World Wide Web Consortium, as well as the Accessibility Board have a wonderful set of lists that are actually available at www.section508.gov. Some of the key things that are very important to look at include the labeling of the image itself. Making sure that the blind person who is using a screen reader can hear the label and understand the nature of the image they are scrolling over with their mouse. Another good one is synchronization of descriptions or captions with multi-media. Essentially, text labeling of the multi-media stream so that someone who is deaf has the ability to understand the audio that is going on with the video. Ensuring the information that's contained in forms, scripts or data tables is available to assistive technology. If you do the design up front to make sure that the form is compatible to screen readers and Braille reading devices, then those are pretty straight forward things.... A flashing object is not something that most designers intuitively think about. But a flashing object on a page can cause an epileptic seizure and other forms of neuro-based seizures. Good contrast between text and background is another guide. Yellow text on a green, plaid and yellow background is probably not a favorable look. Like I say, many of these things are pretty straight forward best practices. Many times, developers take a short cut in the name of expediency. But considered up front, [these things] are pretty cheap to implement.
WTOP: Are there a number of government sites that are already complying or using these accessibility things?
LUIGART: Certainly. The CIO Council has made this a major priority as has the President. All federal agencies have made their top 20 Web sites accessible as part of the CIO Council program. Actually, a majority of all federal Web sites are completely accessible already to people with a disability. I'm proud to say that Education's site is very accessible. Secretary Riley and this Administration, as well as my team here at Education, made this a priority back in 1996 as we actually brought our first Web sites up. The largest application that we have on the Web - which is the student financial form called FASFA (Free Application for Student Financial Aid) - allows an individual student to apply for financial assistance online. It's fully accessible and it was built in from the beginning.
WTOP: Are these new requirements cost prohibitive to smaller agencies, or do you feel they are all easily implemented?
LUIGART: No, it's all pretty cheap to implement. First of all, remember it is not a regressive law. It applies to sites that are designed after June 21, 2001. That said, all of the federal agencies that I mentioned previously have retrofitted their major sites. I like to use the analogy that I often use on designing an accessible home. Many folks know that I run around in a wheel chair part of my day. If I build a home knowing that the doorways need to be 36 inches wide going into the build, it's very cheap. In fact it may actually save material for the builder to design that in. It can be very expensive if we built the house with 2 foot 4 inch doors, finished the house and then went back to cut the doorways out to go to a 36 inch door. The same applies to the development of a Web site. So if you enter the process with the best practices in mind, it's really almost a no-cost event.
WTOP: Is there anything that you would like to add?
LUIGART: The only thing I think I would add is that this is a law whose time has come. I'd like everyone to look around and kind of think about their parents, their mother, uncles, and aging (relatives) and recognize the information age is rushing toward us like a juggernaut as we head toward the post-Guttenberg millennium which faces us. And we also recognize that the human body is beginning to live closing in on a hundred years, but with some broken parts by the time we get there. It's really a good law that recognizes we can't disenfranchise what will shortly be the major portion of our population. And if you look forward to the advances in medical science, then (they are good rules) that maybe we will need for quite some time.