Five site-accessibility tips to help comply with Section 508

If your organization does Internet-related work for the government, then you have to comply with usability requirements listed in Section 508. Adopt these five strategies to be 508 compliant.
Written by Kevin Hunnicutt, Contributor
For those who are not aware, Section 508 refers to a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act requiring government agencies to give “disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.” [Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d)]. If you’re doing Web work for a government agency, Section 508 probably applies to you, too.

Section 508 compliance deals with more than just the Internet and Web sites; however, this article will deal exclusively with Web sites and give you ways to comply with Section 508. You should read this article even if you are not involved in a government project right now—because Section 508 includes reference to the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, making your site Section 508 compliant is a good benchmark to general Web site accessibility.

The five Section 508 compliance tips we’ll discuss are:

  • Readability
  • Style sheets
  • Viewer choice
  • Conservation
  • Tools to help
  • At the end of the article, we’ll provide some resources to help make complying with Section 508 easier.

    Read between the lines
    Using a text-to-speech converter on your pages is a great way to realize how your site fares with sight-challenged Web surfers—especially if you have several images and use tables or layers to organize site content. Although accessibility does not require usability, the two often go side by side. Content is king, and your visitors are on your site to access your content. You need to consider your existing text, images, and audio and video content.

    Because text makes up the majority of content online, make it a priority to review the written content of your entire site. Often, simply reorganizing text on a page by summarizing it with a bulleted list or laying it out in a simple table structure can have a dramatic positive effect.

    If you don’t have access to a text-to-speech Web page reader, a free but more difficult way to experience your site from the viewpoint of a sight-challenged visitor is to read the HTML output of your pages in a text editor. Read it like a book (minus the markup code).

    Most Web page readers start at the top-left corner and read top to bottom, left to right. If you use layers, you might consider converting your layers to tables. However, using Web design software to arbitrarily assign content from a layer to a table or table cell often creates a maze of table cells and unnecessary table clutter.

    A better solution is to manually create tables and cells, considering the linearization of the content. Again, reading the HTML output of your page in a text editor can help this process.

    As you’re reading between the lines, don’t overlook the importance of your images and video. Although your eye candy and ear candy may be the primary justification for your site’s existence, a significant number of Web surfers may have temporarily turned off images in their browser’s settings, are visually impaired, or simply don’t have the plug-in required to view your content. In any case, all images (especially navigation images) should include a textual equivalent. When feasible, a transcript or textual description of video, audio, and multimedia content should also be made available.

    For an example of an audio equivalent, read or listen to a recent U.S. Presidential radio broadcast.

    Style is everything: Cascading style sheets
    One of the easiest ways to begin compliance with Section 508 is to use style sheets to define the look and feel of text on your site and still allow the user to make individual customizations as desired. The official Section 508 Web site allows the user to select font and pitch for that particular Web site.

    Keep in mind that by using certain CSS definitions, you can inadvertently restrict the ability of a visitor to use their own browser’s settings to make simple modifications like changes in text size. Learn what you need to know about CSS, but be conservative when applying styles to your pages.

    Although not 100% compliant, Internet Explorer 3.0+ and Netscape Navigator 4.0+ support a majority of the W3C cascading style sheets specification. It should be no surprise that some browsers support undocumented CSS functionality.

    You may have already come across this annoyance on Web sites that change the color of the scroll bar in Internet Explorer. Fortunately, you can override this style sheet with one of your own, known as a user style sheet.

    Chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry
    Give your visitors options. It is in your best interest to allow the user maximum flexibility in viewing your site. Providing different ways to accomplish this is a task in creativity. You or your design team might lose sleep over these issues and wonder why you’re even bothering. This is natural and will be justified when you successfully provide your visitors with a unique experience allowing them more flexibility in viewing your content than previously available.

    Your site doesn’t have to disclaim why it uses few or no images. Nor do you have to restrict your site graphically if you don’t choose to. Compliance to accessibility standards does not mean having a dull site.

    Typically, software programs allow multiple ways to accomplish the same task. A different series of mouse clicks, various keyboard commands, or even voice commands can all achieve the same result. Navigation is a good place to start providing your visitors with these kinds of options.

    Traditionally, graphical or interactive navigation adorns the top of a Web page. The same header navigation should be replicated in text form at the bottom of the page.

    If you’re using CSS already, it might also be easy to provide a text-only version of your site without much if any rework. This depends on the existing content and how well organized it is.

    Eliminate excess
    I’m sure you’ve heard before that “less is more.” This applies to most Web sites. If you want to increase accessibility by becoming Section 508 compliant, you’ll need to perform a site audit and get rid of everything that isn’t necessary.

    I used to wonder why judges in the U.S. court system spoke so slowly. They don’t talk much, but when they do, they say a lot and it usually has a strong impact. Their words are chosen carefully—not only because they’re on the record, but because less is more in their circumstance.

    Find ways in your design to eliminate spacer images. Convert select paragraphs to a list of bullet points. Consider reducing the length of paragraphs that contain more than three or four sentences.

    When painting with watercolors, white space is golden. What you don’t see is what makes the experience pleasurable. Eliminating excessive words and sentences will pull your content right to the surface. If additional information is required, link to it.

    This change is most noticeable when browsing Web pages with a text-to-speech reader. The audience can get bored very quickly trying to sort through long paragraphs of information that isn’t formatted in the best manner.

    Tools of the trade
    Using the right tools can get the job done more easily. This is just a glimpse at some things you can do to make your site Section 508 compliant. Listed here are resource sites that will provide you with additional information, as well as tools that can help smooth your compliance journey:

  • Summary of Section 508 standards
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines checklist
  • W3C Cascading Style Sheets home page
  • Illegal style sheet definitions
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver accessibility tools
  • Macintosh accessibility tools
  • As of this writing, I have not found a text-to-speech Web page reader program good enough to refer you to, so I do not have any links to specific software. If you know of any, please share your recommendations by posting a comment below or e-mailing the editor.

    Editorial standards