Accessibility guidelines for application software development

You know that your applications have to be usable, but can your apps be used by everyone? New government regulations mandate IT accessibility criteria concerning people with disabilities. Here's how these new rules could affect IT developers.

If you create application or system software for the U.S. government, you must adhere to new disability guidelines to conduct business with federal agencies. This introduction to the Federal IT Accessibility Initiative (FITAI) outlines key sections of the legislation, which mandates equal accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Application developers must meet strict criteria to comply with the legislation, which became law in June of 2001.

The accessibility mandate
In 1998, Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, which significantly amended Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act to require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Federal agencies are mandated to provide disabled employees and members of the public with the same level of access to electronic technology as they provide for nondisabled people. The law applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. The goal is to eliminate barriers in IT, make new opportunities available, and encourage the development of new technologies for people with disabilities.

FITAI, an interagency effort run by the General Services Administration, was founded to spearhead the effort.

What's covered?
Section 508 covers all electronic and information technology used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information. This category includes:
  • Any equipment, interconnected system, or subsystem of equipment.
  • Telecommunication products such as phones.
  • Information kiosks.
  • Computers and other automated devices.
  • Web sites.
  • Multimedia devices and video and audio equipment.
  • Office equipment.

What isn't covered?
Certain exceptions are authorized within the Access Board Standards. These include:
  • Micropurchases (a one-time purchase that's less than $2,500) prior to January of 2003.
  • Acquisitions that impose an undue burden on the agency.
  • Locations that are frequented only by service personnel for maintenance, monitoring, or repair.
  • Acquisitions for national security systems.
  • Acquisitions by a contractor incidental to a contract.

For more information on the compliance guidelines, check out the FITAI's Web site.

A closer look
Here’s a closer look at Subpart A and Subpart B of Section 508's Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards.

Subpart A deals with the purpose, definition, application, and facilitation of the legislation, including general exceptions.

Subpart B addresses the technical standards that all electronic and information technology must meet unless granted an exemption. (See part 1194.3 of Subpart A for exemptions.)

The new standards address:

Software applications and operating systems. This section includes requirements for the support for activated accessibility features or devices. Several rules apply to those with vision impairment. For example, consistent use of images for program elements or alternative text versions is stipulated.

Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications. Requirements for Web-based technology are directly incorporated from the guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These guidelines apply to specific visual representations of data as well as support for various assistive products such as screen readers or Braille displays.

Telecommunication products. This section addresses the accessibility needs of those with hearing impairments. Included are compatibility rules for devices such as TTYs, hearing aids, or other assistive listening devices. Other rules apply to the use of volume controls, product interfaces, and usability guides for controls used by those with limited dexterity or motor control.

Video and multimedia products. This section addresses rules for video programs, slide production, and graphical and animated presentations. Also included are guidelines on closed-captioning and second audio programming for television and computer presentations.

Self-contained, closed products. This section applies to devices with embedded systems that traditionally have no interface for assistive technology. Examples include photocopiers, printers, calculators, fax machines, and information kiosks.

Desktop and portable computers. Specific requirements for computer hardware and associated devices are included in this section.

Subpart C includes general guidelines for functional performance characteristics of products not specifically covered in Subpart B. Subpart D sets parameters for system or equipment documentation and support.

Improving accessibility
Those of us who develop software or build information-processing equipment often forget about the accessibility needs that this legislation was designed to address. For an overview of how disability affects Americans and a look at proposed policies to improve accessibility, check out "New Freedom Initiative: Fulfilling America's Promise to Americans with Disabilities" on the White House's Web site.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox