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Section 508 Accessibility Expands to Microsoft Word and PDFs

Accessibility isn’t just for websites anymore!

By Bevi Chagnon, PubCom

Get ready. In a few months, the revised U.S. federal government’s Section 508 standards will expand accessibility to include Word, PDFs, email, and most government documents of any kind, even those produced by contractors. Section 508 accessibility isn’t just for websites anymore.

Here’s how this change will affect your work and how you can prepare for it.

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.

Who is affected.

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.

Section 508 coverage will soon be expanded.

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.

Description: Cover of the U.S. Access Board's Draft Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines, releaed for public comment March 2010.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

  • Email, webmail, e-newsletters, and other forms of electronic mail (E103.3.1.3, 401.1);
  • Electronic documents, including MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, Acrobat PDF files, and forms (501);
  • Content management systems (CMS) (401.1);
  • Electronic deliverables procured from outside contractors and vendors, including reports, user manuals, proposals and bids, and technical documentation;
  • Technical training, documentation, and help desk support of products procured by the agency (E109 & C104); and
  • Non-text content, such as graphical text, photos, graphics, illustrations, video, and audio (already covered by the current standards when they appear on websites, now they will be covered when incorporated into document files, such as videos embedded into PowerPoint presentations and Word documents).

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.

Gray areas are now black and white.

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
www.access-board.gov/sec508/standards.htm www.access-board.gov/sec508/refresh/draft-rule.htm
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 (E103.3.1.2).
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 (E103.3.1.1).
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 (E103.3.1.1, 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.

ICT 2.0 incorporates international WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards.

Description: Graphic shows website for WCAG 2.0, Web content accessibility guidelines.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 ]

It’s a brand new blended world of technologies.

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

  • Expanding the intent and coverage of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998;
  • Incorporating international WCAG 2.0 standards for websites [ www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20 ];
  • Merging the requirements of Section 508 with those of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which sets accessibility requirements for telecommunication devices; and
  • Merging the requirements of Section 508 with those of the Americans with Disabilities Act Guidelines (ADAAG), which sets accessibility requirements for self-serve kiosks and machines for point-of-sale purchases, ticketing and check-in/check-out, food ordering, and other self-serve technologies.

Some agencies are leading the pack.

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.)

Here are some ways you can get ready.

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.

Writers, editors, subject matter experts, proposal writers, grant writers, and contractors:

  • Description: Graphic: 508 Word.Take a refresher course in MS Word that teaches not just better use of the software but also how to make Word files accessible. At a minimum, the course should teach how to use styles, set the document’s structure, create Alt-text for graphics, format tables for accessibility, and add metadata.
  • Description: Graphic: 508 PDF.Learn how to export accessible PDFs from Word.
  • And learn how to add some finishing accessibility touches to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro software (not the free Adobe Reader).

Webmasters and other web producers:

  • Same as for writers listed above.
  • Learn how to make websites and digital media accessible, too.

Desktop publishers and graphic designers:

  • Description: Graphic: 508 InDesign.Same as for writers listed above.
  • Take a specialized course in Adobe InDesign that teaches how to construct layout files that can be easily exported to accessible PDFs for the web and electronic distribution. (Designers, making 508-accessible web-quality PDFs will not affect your press-quality PDFs for print shops.)

PubCom's accessibility training

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
March 2011

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Contents, this article

Software Tools for Sec. 508

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:

  • MS Office 2010 creates better, more accessible files and has a built-in accessibility checker.
  • Adobe InDesign CS 5.5 is the only version that has accessibility tools to create compliant PDFs.
  • Acrobat X (10) has an accessiblity checker and tools for remediating PDFs.

Census Bureau figures for 2010

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.


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