Internet Accessibility: Lead By Example - What Section 508 Means to Web Hosts
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Section 508 is a law in its own right and failure to comply, by those that must, are wide open to the possibility of being sued by either staff or customers that are disabled and find web or intranet sites/applications unduly difficult to navigate or access. If youíre unsure as to whether section 508 applies to you or not, it probably doesnít. Section 508 is specifically aimed at federal organisations or agencies, and covers almost the complete spectrum of existing units with the exception of the military and some intelligence agencies.
Other countries have similar laws and acts in place to guard the rights of the disabled; theUKand the Commonwealth for example, have the Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1995; part three of which specifically states that any goods or service provided by any organisation or company must make those goods or services accessible to anyone classed as disabled. I find it interesting to note that whereas theUShas their own guidelines for what mark-up or design elements to include in order to make a site accessible, theUKand other Commonwealth countries refer specifically to the WAI WCAG.
At this point in time, there are no legal requirements in the US that state that companies or people providing services to the private sector must confirm to accessibility standards. However unlikely, it is possible that this may change in the future, but this doesn't mean that people shouldn't be thinking about this already. One thing to note however is that any company employing 15 or more people must conform with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and make sure that computer systems/applications are accessible to staff.
Just because as a US web host providing services to the public, there are no legal requirements to conform to an accessibility standard, this does not mean that it would not be a good idea to embrace an accessibility standard, and advertise this fact to prospective clients.
Web hosting sites are kind of like meta-sites, web sites that manage and provide other websites, so the potential they have for leading by example is huge. Section 508 conformance is only applicable if you are connected in some way to the Government so most hosts can safely ignore this. Adhering to the WAI WCAG however sends out a message that you understand and care about the needs and concerns of a wider user base than perhaps those that donít follow the W3C example.
Iím sure that everyone will agree, accessibility is an important issue to consider when designing websites, there is just no question of that. Many, many websites however simply donít meet the requirements. Building websites according to either section 508 or the WCAG is actually not that difficult at all and I think that the primary reason for inaccessible websites is merely an unawareness of accessibility requirements rather than a conscious unwillingness. If more hosts themselves kept to at least the minimum 'A' conformance level, and provided information and links to accessibility resources (of which there are a growing number), more and more web sites would think about this when it counted most, at the design stage.
Many hosts offer not just a facility for pages to be uploaded by a developer once they have been constructed, but also a facility for creating and editing pages online. One thing perhaps that hosts could include in their online design facility is the ability to feed a completed page through an online accessibility checker, like the Watchfire Web XACT application (http://webxact.watchfire.com). This online application will check and provide a report on any areas that the web page fed to it falls down on, and allows the checking of all three conformance levels. The Watchfire site actually has information on it enabling others to include this application on their own site which is something that could be looked into by all major hosters and probably be implemented fairly easily. The Cynthia Says portal (http://www.contentquality.com/) also provides a similar service but offers a downloadable version for desktop accessibility validating.
Another small but usefully encouraging thing that hosts could provide is the ability to add the conformance logos to a clients site once validation and conformance has been confirmed.
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