The Law of the Land
The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 were signed into law on August 7, 1998 as title IV of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-220). (The text of section 508 as amended is available at http://www.access-board.gov/pubs.laws.htm.) The federal government is now compelled to provide comparable access to online information for all employees and members of the public with disabilities. Thus, federal employees must be supplied with the necessary assistive technology to facilitate online access and the Website content and design should allow disabled members of the public equal access as well.
The federal government agency charged with developing, issuing and publishing the guidelines which will implement the new policies is the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (otherwise known as the "Access Board.") The Access Board in turn created the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee to provide recommendations for the new accessibility standards for electronic and information technology. The Access Board Website (http://www.access-board.gov/) is a wonderful site where you can find the minutes of their meetings, publications and some very good related sites.
The Advisory Committee guidelines or standards are expected in May of 1999. Based on these recommendations, the Access Board will publish its proposed rules in August of 1999. The final regulations will be published in February, 2000. They will be mandatory for all government sites and non-governmental Websites will be strongly encouraged to adopt the new online publishing standards as well.
The Government Prepares
In preparation for the new guidelines, the Attorney General of the United States issued a memorandum to all federal agencies on April 2, 1999 describing their responsibilities under the Rehabilitation Act Amendments. (The text of the memorandum is at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt.508/memohead.html.) The Department of Justice has also developed a "Section 508 Home Page" which contains a "508 information package" (http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/508home.html) and a page which has "section 508 instructions and documents (http://www.usdoj.gov/crt.508/508docs.html). In addition to the information on the DOJ page, the Access Board has a page entitled, "Questions and Answers about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998" which can be viewed at: http://www.access-board.gov/eitaac/section-508-q&a.htm.
105-220, section 508 as amended
|WAI Web site
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
Working tangentially to the Access Board on the issue of accessibility is a public/private consortium called the Web Accessibility Initiative, also known as the WAI or W3C (the WAI Web site is at http://www.w3.org?WAI/). On May 5, 1999, the WAI published their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. To assist people with understanding the Guidelines, the WAI has prepared a Fact Sheet. The WAI Website states that the Guidelines seek to "establish stable principles for accessible design, such as the need to provide equivalent alternatives for auditory and visual information." The collaborative effort of the WAI has produced an excellent set of industry recommendations which should be read by all online publishers.
Although the WAI guidelines are industry recommendations and the Access Board regulations will only apply to the federal government, the next logical step is to expand these standards to the private sector. Creating a "handicapped accessible" site will not only increase the traffic on your Website, but will prepare you for the future in online publishing. It may truly just be a matter of time before these requirements become mandatory for all online publishers.