Web Accessibility: Present and Future, in a Nutshell

Illustration by Tom Klimek

Illustration by Tom Klimek

Web accessibility is an important aspect of the World Wide Web many of us develop, maintain and manage every day. An understanding of web accessibility is essential for anyone who produces content.

Where it all started

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998. The intent of this amendment was to identify standards for electronic information and software that would allow all users, including those with disabilities, improved access to public websites.

Section 508 contains subpart 1194.22. Adopted in 2001, this section specifically addresses such web issues as text tags, multimedia presentations, color, readability, image maps, data tables and frames.

Time for change…

It’s been more than 10 years since this amendment has been brought into law. Given the huge shift in the number of people using the internet now for everyday business, as well as how websites are developed, these standards should be updated to reflect our modern internet community. In 2010 the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board proposed the first round of changes. The current draft was published on March 22, 2010, and public comment was taken until June 21, 2010. There also seems to be a closer relationship to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Essentially if you meet WCAG2.0 then your web page will also comply with Section 508.

Expect to see a lot more movement towards multimedia and mobile accessibility soon. On October 8, 2010, President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. As with other laws, this does not focus specifically on the web.  However, there are some very direct ramifications on the web, specifically when it comes  to how online video should feature captions.

Do I HAVE to?

If you are like I was, and you really have had a hard time figuring out whether these rules apply to you or not, consider a statement issued by the Department of Justice on April 22, 2010. In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Samuel R. Bagenstos stated, “The Department of Justice has long taken the position that both State and local government websites and the websites of private entities that are public accommodations are covered by the ADA. “

A few more reasons

If doing things to make life better for humans doesn’t compel you, consider the machines. By making your websites accessible to technology used by those with disabilities, you are also making a better website for modern browsers, alternative devices, and search engines that work purely with the code on the page. By improving your access to technology, you just might end up with webpage that is easier to find and use.