Disability Laws Take Flight

Regulations make web sites be more accessible

Helicopter pilots the world over fly in fear of the dreaded Jesus Nut. A part on all rotor-powered craft, the Jesus Nut is so critical that, if it were ever to pop off while in flight, the helicopter would dive faster than a ripped parachute.

These days, IT officials at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.—and all big government contractors, for that matter—have a new version of the Jesus Nut to worry about. Its Section 508 of the 1998 Federal Rehabilitation Act. Passed into law Dec. 21, Section 508 requires all IT used by federal employees—including Web pages posted by federal agencies and their contractors such as Bell, in Ft. Worth, Texas—be accessible to disabled individuals. That means, for example, that blind users must be able to access both text and nontext elements of government and contractor Web sites. It even requires that office equipment, such as fax machines and photocopiers, be accessible to disabled individuals. Contractors that dont comply by June stand to lose their slice of the federal governments $42 billion fiscal year 2001 IT budget.

One of the first broad federal mandates of Web site accessibility for the disabled, Section 508 is forcing government agencies and contractors alike to make major investments in Web site redesign. Total Section 508 compliance spending, government estimates indicate, will end up being $100 million. Some 11,000 contractors will be affected, about 65 percent of them small businesses. Some government contractors and federal agencies are being forced to replace entire sites from the ground up to achieve compliance, a pretty painful introduction to accessibility issues, experts say.

And, they add, there is a lesson even for enterprises not directly affected by Section 508: Build disabled accessibility into your site now to avoid big disruptions and expenses later.

"If [accessibility] hasnt been part of the front end, if it has to be retrofit and put on, as opposed to being part of the original design ... its usually more expensive," said Paul McQuade, a government contracts attorney with Greenberg Traurig, in McLean, Va., who works closely with companies affected by the new law.

Costs be Damned

When bell helicopter first approached the project of becoming Section 508-compliant in mid-2000, it found that, like many contractors and federal agencies, it had its work cut out for it. Indeed, less than 50 percent of its 80,000 Web pages were accessible.

But whether to tackle the work of retagging and reorganizing the metadata on its pages to make it accessible to the disabled was never even a question for Bell officials.

The company sells more than $500 million worth of helicopters and other hybrid fixed-movable-winged aircraft yearly—a "fairly substantial chunk" of which comes from federal customers such as the military, according to John Woods, a Buchanan Associates Inc. consultant whos serving as Bells managing consultant for e-business. Jeopardizing that business by failing to comply with Section 508 was not an option for Bell.

But complying wasnt inexpensive or easy. Part of the problem, Woods, in Ft. Worth, pointed out, is that different Bell Web pages had different levels of disabled access built in, depending on who developed them. At Bell, as at many companies, Internet pages are the accumulation of the long-term work of a myriad of company developers—many of whom, despite educational efforts by accessibility champions such as the World Wide Web Consortium, remain ignorant about the simple procedures a developer can take at the design stage to integrate accessibility into a Web site.

"A lot of times, developers, theyre fairly tunnel-vision toward disabled folks using the Web," Woods said. "A lot of folks dont even know there are devices out there for the blind to read Web pages."

That design-stage ignorance is coming back to haunt contractors like Bell, which must now clean up for Section 508 compliance. Between Woods and a few colleagues, Bell Helicopter has had about two-and-a-half full-time workers tweaking code since the middle of last year. Woods said the work should be wrapped up by summer. The work entails changing all media references to include Alt tags—pop-up windows that describe nontext elements of a Web page—as well as adding metadata on each page to improve search engine capabilities for the disabled and nondisabled.

Bell has managed to cut some of the tediousness out of the effort by using the Metadata Management System, a software scanning and documentation tool from Watchfire Corp., of Lexington, Mass. The software scans and analyzes documents on intranets, extranets and Web sites and automatically inserts meaningful keyword metadata. Woods credits MMS with shaving 80 percent of the time it would take to go in and manually slog through the documents.

Some organizations directly affected by Section 508 have less slogging to do than others. The federal HCFA (Health Care Financing Administration), in Baltimore, for example, started working in 1999—long before Section 508 was passed—to improve site navigation for seniors and the disabled by eliminating some graphics, adding a one-column layout for screen readers and Braille displays, which include relative font sizing, colors and larger, easier-to-read default text sizes for seniors. The agency operates Medicare.gov, a site regularly accessed by many of the countrys 35 million Medicare beneficiaries who access information online.

Last years design, which wrapped up in a May relaunch, was in response to legislation that predated Section 508: namely, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which required HCFA to provide information to Medicare beneficiaries about their health care choices.

To achieve compliance with Section 508, HCFA will have to look at its use of Java scripting, said Kris Marzullo, Webmaster for Medicare.gov. Section 508 requires that sites be able to function with Java scripting turned off. An example of scripting use is a pop-up box warning visitors leaving Medicare.gov that they should be aware of the privacy policies of whatever site theyre exiting to. In HCFAs Section 508 compliance redesign, which is set to culminate in April, such pop-up boxes will be replaced with basic Active Server Page pages that work when scripting is off.

In addition to using internal gurus such as Marzullo, the HCFA hired outside consultancy American Management Systems Inc., in Fairfax, Va., which devoted 16 people full-time to work on Medicare.gov usability. AMS Center for Advanced Technology tweaked and prodded everything from color choice to button size, which is an issue for users with restricted mobility.

Bottom line: HCFAs in good shape. The agency has far surpassed Section 508 requirements. HCFAs been lauded for this vigorous embracing of accessibility: Last December, it was given an e-Healthcare award for Best Health Plan site. And that makes it exactly the kind of outfit that other e-businesses and federal agencies should look to when theyre trying to get a handle on how to do Section 508 right, experts say.

And that goes not only for federal agencies and their contractors affected by Section 508. Enterprises that arent directly affected might want to begin building accessibility into their sites now, experts say. After all, if you ignore the disabled, youre ignoring scads of potential customers.

"In a large corporate environment, youve got to take the angle [of incorporating accessibility for the disabled into Web design]," said Bells Woods. "Not only to avoid litigation with the American Disabilities Act, but also to expand the audience of who can see your site. I mean, Bell doesnt sell helicopters online right now, but a site like Amazon.com, which does [sell online], if they wrote only for nondisabled people, their revenue would be impacted greatly."