ROI on Accessibility

Technologies once known as 'assistive' will aid everybody

Section 508(b), essentially a federal procurement mandate requiring that government electronic and information technology be accessible to those with disabilities, will in the long run affect far more than federal intranets and Internet sites.

So far, the requirement known as Section 508 has been effective by using the carrot rather than the stick—rewarding companies for doing the right thing. Compliance not only makes them eligible for government spending but also makes their sites accessible to an estimated 50 million Americans with disabilities whom most Web sites currently dont reach.

According to Gregg Vanderheiden, director of The Trace Research & Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of several authorities on accessibility with whom eWeek Labs spoke for this Special Report, "508 is unique because it doesnt require companies to make products accessible but gives them a competitive edge in a very large market if they do. ... This will result in more usable consumer products for people of all ages and abilities."

Judy Brown, an eWeek Corporate Partner and emerging technology analyst in the University of Wisconsin system, saw another potential benefit of doing good. Brown said that making Web sites more accessible for those with disabilities could also make them more accessible to those with different learning styles: auditory, kinesthetic, visual and so on. Consequently, opportunities for teaching as well as lifelong learning would be enhanced, she said.

And judging from eWeek Labs conversation with Mike Paciello, a longtime public advocate and more recently founder of WebAble Inc., a Boston-based company that offers consulting services and technology to help businesses make their sites compatible with federal requirements, Section 508 has already gone beyond being a procurement guideline and promises to yield technology that will benefit all people, not just those with disabilities.

An authority on Web accessibility and assistive technology, Paciello literally wrote the book ("Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities") and some of the law that eventually became Section 508. eWeek Labs spoke with Paciello in WebAbles Nashua, N.H., office.

eWeek Labs: What has Section 508 so far achieved, and what does it mean for the future?

Paciello: 508 is a motivator for innovation. Think about what its already accomplished: built awareness around issues involving accessibility and Web accessibility to people with disabilities; encouraged states, countries and whole continents to adopt similar legislation; pushed standards bodies and support groups ... to begin developing technical standards, performance measurements and specifications in support of accessibility; forced the high-tech industry to create innovative and needed solutions. They have to consider the validity of a real market—50-plus million here in the United States, 500-plus million worldwide.

eWeek Labs: Are we seeing evidence of a strategy to capitalize on the fact that device-independent display of information has profitable implications far beyond assistive devices?

Paciello: Industry, especially Fortune 100 companies, has been out front on this issue and so far has not played the good corporate citizen card to excess. They foresee the time when Section 508 becomes more than a federal procurement document and is incorporated into ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] where, for example, any entity of 15 people or more might be [required to make their Web site] accessible even if they only run an intranet for internal use.

There are approximately 50 million Americans with disabilities ... perhaps 500 million worldwide, and the market opportunities moved Forrester [Research Inc.], Gartner [Inc.] and [The] Gallup [Organization] to research these markets to determine how many of these people are using the Web and electronic information services. Without Section 508, we wouldnt have seen this.

eWeek Labs: Although the mandate for industry to comply with 508 may be an unaddressed market and therefore unrealized profit, doesnt the Department of Commerce have the even stronger mandate of the Constitution?

Paciello: You could put it that way, but the fact remains that ... this area has been characterized by cooperation, not litigation. I have seen IBM, Microsoft [Corp.], Sun [Microsystems Inc.] and Netscape [Communications Corp.] sit down together and make things work.

eWeek Labs: After spending many years in the nonprofit sector, as founder and chief technology officer of WebAble you are now in the 508 compliance business and competing with others. With whom does WebAble compete, and has that cooperative spirit survived?

Paciello: In the sense that the underlying principle is doing good for folks, yes, it has survived, but there is competition. Crunchy Technology [Inc.], SSB Technologies [Inc.] and Watchfire Corp. have products similar to [Hiawatha Island Software Co. Inc.s], while Optavia [Corp.] is probably the most direct competitor for WebAble.

eWeek Labs: Section 508 strictly applies to government Internet and intranet sites. Why do you think we are seeing such massive movement, even beyond government vendors?

Paciello: There are implications for the general population regarding technologies originally considered "assistive" or "adaptive." Busy hand/busy eye situations for populations without disabilities, for example, enable a driver to place a phone call or consult a GPS [Global Positioning System] navigation system via hands-free and voice recognition technology long used by those with visual disabilities.

To support an information-intensive mobile environment, what were once considered assistive technologies will enable the general population to do more in demanding environments.

eWeek Labs: Section 508 has had an effect well beyond that of a simple procurement guideline. What is your vision of the future?

Paciello: A universal network of intelligently operating interfaces, which allow people with and without disabilities to have a completely equal playing field. A person with a disability could then accomplish a task in the same time, to the same level, as a person without a disability.

Some say its impossible, but I think not. Thats the nature of vision.