Accessibility isn’t just for websites anymore!
By Bevi Chagnon, PubCom
A huge oversight was built into the original Section 508 accessibility standards released in 2000, eleven years ago. The requirements addressed government information only on websites and failed to specify that all other government information needed to be accessible, too.
For more than 10 years, MS Word documents, Acrobat PDF files, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, email, and every other kind of document produced by federal government agencies have been exempt.
But that’s about to change.
If you work for a federal government agency as either an employee, a contractor, or a freelancer, your knowledge of Section 508 and accessibility requirements will be crucial to your job.
Anyone who creates a document — writers, editors, desktop publishers, and web developers — will need to understand Section 508's requirements. Nearly every federal document will be covered by the expanded standards.
Do you work for state and local government agencies, nonprofits, or educational institutions? It's expected that most state and local government agencies will adopt the federal standards, and most nonprofit organizations and educational institutions will follow suit, also.
In 2011, the U.S. federal government’s accessibility watchdog, the U.S. Access Board [ www.access-board.gov ], is expected to update its standards and guidelines for accessibility of all electronic information, expanding the current coverage from mainly website content to just about everything any government agency produces or purchases.
Let me repeat that.
Forthcoming requirements will cover all electronic information, not just websites and videos. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines ver. 2.0 will cover nearly all electronic content (E103.3), including
These are just some of the ICT (information and communication technology) requirements that will affect how you produce your everyday documents.
The forthcoming standards also cover many other nondocument types of information, including cell phones and other telecommunication technologies, office equipment, computer hardware, self-serve kiosks, and software user interfaces.
The original standards and guidelines were published in December 2000.
A lot of technological changes have become commonplace in our lives in the decade since then, such as smart phones with touch screens rather than buttons or keyboards, tablets/slates such as the Apple iPad, and check-in kiosks at airports and other transportation centers.
The original standards also did not address documents such as MS Word files or Acrobat PDFs.
Excuses, workarounds, and loopholes became commonplace during the past decade to get around government Section 508 accessibility requirements.
Here is a comparison between the original and forthcoming standards and how some critical gray areas will be soon clarified. (Items in parentheses reference the appropriate section in ICT 2.0.)
|Original Dec. 2000 Standards
||Forthcoming ICT 2.0 Standards
|Only information on websites.||All electronic information, regardless of whether it’s stored on a website, on an internal file server, emailed, burned to a CD or flash drive, or in any other location or file format (E18.104.22.168).|
|Only information on federal government websites.||All electronic information, regardless of its location, including when it is stored on an outside non-federal government website (E22.214.171.124).|
|Only information for federal government employees.||For federal government employees and the general public (E103.3.1).|
|Only information created by federal government agencies.||All electronic information created by a federal government agency, purchased by a federal government agency, or produced by outside vendors/contractors on behalf of a federal government agency (E126.96.36.199, E103.4, E103.4.2).|
|Only information technologies used by federal government agencies.||Includes information technologies used by contractors for the material they create under contract to the federal government (does not cover their use of technologies for their other non-government work).|
|Only HTML webpages.||Not just HTML webpages but also office documents, PDFs, forms, and anything else available on a website, stored on a file server, distributed, or transmitted by a federal government agency or a thirdparty on behalf of a federal agency.|
|Only some federal government agencies required to meet the standards.||All federal government agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service. Exemptions are ICT that is part of a national security system (E105.2).|
|Item not addressed.||Other exemptions are ICT that is solely for archival purposes (E103.3.1) and ICT procured, developed, maintained, or put into use prior to the new standards’ effective date (E103.4.1).|
|Item not addressed clearly.||HTML and XML markup languages are required to be used so that assistive technologies (AT) used by blind and disabled people can correctly access, read, and interpret the content.|
International accessibility standards for websites have been adopted by many governments worldwide since their release in 2008. These standards are known as WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and are available at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20. (The acronym WCAG 2.0 is often pronounced “W-kahg-two.”)
But WCAG 2.0 addresses only web content and not documents and other common types of files, so many governments around the world have created their own standards for documents. At this time there are no international standards for documents and other content other than WCAG 2.0 for websites.
The U.S. Access Board has incorporated WCAG 2.0 international standards into the forthcoming U.S. ICT 2.0 standards. Where appropriate, WCAG 2.0’s standards for website content have also been applied to the new standards for document files.
An example of this is Alt-text for graphics. WCAG 2.0 standards require that nontext elements such as graphics on websites must have alternative text applied to them so that screen reader software can interpret the visual graphic for blind users. The forthcoming U.S. ICT 2.0 standards expand that requirement to graphics that are in documents such as Word and PDF files.
The Access Board has a draft of the new standards and guidelines on its website. [ www.access-board.gov/508.htm ] A PDF of the draft is available, too. [ www.access-board.gov/sec508/refresh/draft-rule.pdf ]
ICT 2.0 will also dissolve the barrier between what’s a website and what’s telecommunication. This is critical, given how prevalent smart phones, PDAs, slates, tablets, and touch-screen kiosks have become that are both computers and telecommunication devices.
These different technologies are now overlapping and converging, and ICT 2.0 meets this blended technology world by
Kudos to many of our government agencies that have already started to meet these new requirements for documents. Not only have they made their websites accessible, but they’ve also begun to produce accessible PDFs, Word files, and other routine government documents.
Because there hasn’t been a clear set of standards for documents before now, each agency created its own standards, techniques, and best practices. Some are more inclusive than others, creating inconsistent practices among our federal government agencies.
ICT 2.0’s language and intent are very clear: accessibility covers all information and computer technologies (ICT) produced by or on behalf of a federal government agency or procured by a federal government agency. (The standards do not apply to state and local government information, but most jurisdictions are expected to adopt the federal standards as they can.)
Accessibility begins with Word.
Or with PowerPoint, Excel, and other common office programs.
Because most of our content begins with a writer using Word or another word processor, accessibility should be built into the content right from the start, with the very first word that’s written by the author.
Accessibility isn’t added or tacked onto a document once it’s handed to the IT staff, webmasters, or desktop publishers. By then it’s too late in the production process to efficiently make the document accessible. It’s time-consuming and difficult to make a fully accessible document from a poorly constructed Word or PDF file. Some documents simply can’t be fully remediated once they’re in PDF format.
Instead, adjust your office’s workflow just a bit to bring accessibility requirements onto everyone’s everyday to-do list. Most recent software programs have tools and features to help you do this efficiently and fairly painlessly. It’s just a matter of learning how to use these new tools.
PubCom has a full array of courses on Section 508 topics as well as traditional desktop publishing, digital media, and website development. We started offering accessibility training in 2001.
Sign up for our upcoming classes at www.pubcom.com/classes, or we can bring a custom curriculum to your agency that can train your writers, editors, desktop publishers, and webmasters.
We’re committed to making documents accessible for the nearly 20% of our fellow citizens who have disabilities that make it difficult for them to use computer technologies.
We can teach you how easy it is to make your documents accessible, too.
— Bevi Chagnon
Founding Honcho, PubCom
These are my thoughts about publishing and marketing careers in the coming decade.
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Only the most recent versions of MS Office and Adobe InDesign have the tools to create accessible files and PDFs. Here's what you'll need:
54 million: Number of people who have a disability.
19%: Percentage of the civilian noninstitutionalized population that is disabled.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau News, CB10-FF.13, 20th Anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act: July 26, 2010.