How Difficult Is It to Meet the Requirements of Section 508?

Four words can kill a brilliantly innovative approach, scuttle a long-term project, and add unexpected time and cost to a marginal project: “Is it 508 compliant?”

If you much work on web content, or electronic documents of any kind, in DC you will eventually hear section 508 invoked—and you will see the effect this invocation has on project managers and stakeholders:

“Do we really have to?” or “Never mind, let’s just drop this project.”

Is Section 508 really that frightening? Should it be?

What Is It?

Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and requires that Federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. As applied to web content, it normally means that the content must be accessible to visually impaired users. Often, these users will be using text-readers to read the content to them.

Strictly speaking, the act applies to federal agency websites and digital content. However, many non-profits, non-government agencies, federal contractors, and other entities that work with the federal government attempt to meet the standards as well.

Why Do It?

  • It is required for federal agencies, and may be for contractors and non-profits working with federal agencies.
  • Compliance is also good karma. If you’re going to offer information online, why exclude people?
  • Plus, material that meets standards for section 508 is also much more accessible to search engine crawlers, which means you’re helping with search engine optimization. After all, a text reader and search engine crawler are trying to solve the same basic problem.

How Much Effort Will It Take?

Section 508 issues can occur at several stages in web development and content creation. During development, if you are using a modern CMS, you should be okay as long as:

  • You use clearly, fairly standard terms for navigation
  • Any icons that provide navigational or other information are properly tagged

Where most people run into trouble is when they start adding content. This is especially true if you are uploading content created for a different medium, such as powerpoint presentations or PDFs.

Many document types present specific issues, but you can find a nice list for several common document types here.

But there’s one place that people frequently run into trouble: the use of tables, charts, graphs, images, and infographics to convey information. These are all visual ways of displaying information. Getting that information across to someone using a text reader can be very difficult.

If you want to imagine how hard it might be to make a given infographic 508 compliant, try calling up a friend and explaining the thing over the phone. The time it takes, and frustration it causes are good guides to how much effort you’ll need to put into making that document 508 compliant.

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