A Federal Web Accessibility Mandate Generates Corporate Interest

Regulations requiring federal agencies to make their Web sites accessible to disabled people went into effect two months ago.

Its a bit counterintuitive.

Regulations requiring federal agencies to make their Web sites accessible to disabled people went into effect two months ago. But one consulting firm specializing in Web accessibility reports sees most of its activity in the private sector. Mike Paciello, founder of WebABLE (www.webable.com), says requests from corporate entities nearly double the requests his company receives from government agencies.

Heres the background: Congress passed a law in 1998 that included a provision for making federal information technology—including Web sites—a usable resource for people with visual and hearing impairments. The U.S. Access Board has fleshed out that provision—known as Section 508—in a set of compliance standards (www.access-board.gov/508.htm). Those standards, in turn, have been embedded in the governments Federal Acquisition Regulation. As of June 25, Web sites procured by federal agencies must comply with the Section 508 regulations. Administrative actions and lawsuits can be brought against agencies that fail to comply.

So why are commercial entities interested in a mandate that applies to federal agencies? Some companies believe the government eventually will set accessibility standards for private-sector Web sites, Paciello says.

Indeed, Congress has been tinkering with the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of the issues up for debate, according to Paciello, is whether the laws mandate for public accommodations should be specifically extended to include public IT—such as Web-based kiosks in airports.

Paciello says corporations concerned with Web accessibility typically ask for an assessment of where they currently stand and an overview of how their competitors are doing. "They want to make sure they are running head and shoulders above" their rivals in terms of accessibility. WebABLEs customers include Compaq Computer Corp. and Fidelity Investments.

Companies also are interested in having a software solution to automate the compliance process. WebABLE, for example, recently entered an agreement with Reef (www.reef.com), a provider of tools for building accessible Web sites. WebABLE will use Reef EveryWare technology, which Reef acquired last year in its purchase of Edapta.

But Reef EveryWare isnt the only software tool available in the accessibility market. SSB Technologies (www.ssbtechnologies.com), for example, markets InSight, which diagnoses potential Section 508 violations, and InFocus, which retrofits noncompliant sites. Hiawatha Island Software Co. (www.hisoftware.com) offers AccVerify and AccRepair, and AccMonitor for assessing compliance and fixing problems. And Crunchy Technologies (www.crunchy.com) offers PageScreamer for analyzing and correcting Section 508 violations. All three companies work with partners.

The exhibition hall at last months E-Gov conference was crowded with companies selling products with Section 508 compliance features. Robert Weideman, VP of marketing at Cardiff Software (www.cardiff.com), cites Section 508 among the key drivers behind sales of Cardiffs LiquidOffice electronic forms management system.

"The technology is there," says Paciello, who adds that the key obstacle with Section 508 is getting the word out. "The real challenge is … building awareness that there are solutions," he says.