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Section 508: What It Is and Why You Need to Know
2015, Q3 (May 05, 2015)
By Catherine Sprankle, Chapter Member

Catherine Sprankle
Catherine Sprankle

A proposal for a federal government contract I recently contributed to contained the statement “All contract deliverables, web content or communication materials will conform to Section 508 accessibility standards.” If you know what that means and (more importantly) know what to do to address that requirement, you can become more valuable to your client or team. This article provides an overview of what Section 508 is and the kinds of things that need to be done to comply with its requirements.

What “Section 508” is

“Section 508” refers to an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act states that U.S. federal government information and services will be made available equally to people with and without disabilities. Section 508 broadened this equal access to include information provided electronically.

This requirement has implications for a broad range of hardware devices and software. But if your deliverables are documents, then your Section 508-compliance responsibilities are going to involve making electronic versions of those documents more usable by people with vision- and mobility-limiting disabilities. Thus, the documents need to be compatible with magnification, screen readers, navigation aids, and similar assistive technologies.

The process of making documents “508-compliant” can be challenging, and until recently applications used to create documents provided little or no help to someone trying to accomplish that goal. The good news is, that’s changing. Even better, if you’re using your applications effectively, many of the things that need to be done to make a document accessible are things you’re very likely doing already.

First determine your specific requirements

If you’re responsible for making documents accessible, the first things you need to do is find out (1) whether the document you’re working on even needs to meet accessibility standards and (2) if so, how the document is going to be evaluated.

For example, the policy of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is that a PDF required to meet accessibility standards must pass the accessibility “Full Check” in Adobe Acrobat Professional 11. NIEHS documents that need to meet the accessibility standards include final documents posted on a website. However, a draft document posted on a website doesn’t need to be accessible, and neither does a document providing information that is readily available in an accessible form (for example, a “printable PDF” version of information provided on a webpage).

Get information on requirements and standards as early in the document development process as possible. You don’t want to waste time making a document comply to an unnecessary standard or the wrong standard, and you want to make sure you have the software you’ll need to test your document.

Accessibility basics

Once you’ve determined that the document needs to meet an accessibility standard, start building it in a way that will simplify the process of making the final compliant document. Remember that accessibility for electronic documents is about making those documents more usable for people with limited vision and mobility. This means you’re going to need to:
  • Set document metadata correctly. Open the “Properties” dialog in your document and make sure that, at minimum, the document title and author are correct and that the language is set to English (or whatever is appropriate for the target audience).
  • Ensure all text is readable. Use common fonts that are supported by a broad range of programs and printers. For a technical document, consider spelling out Greek letters such as “alpha” and “beta” rather than using symbol fonts. Avoid using images for text; if you must use an image file for a letterhead or logo, be sure to add appropriate descriptive text as described below.
  • Use hyperlinks appropriately. When setting up hyperlinks, make the hyperlinked text describes its destination (don’t use a generic phrase like “click here”). Ensure the link leads to the correct destination.
  • Use color and contrast appropriately. If your text is anything other than black on white, check that the text meets standards for color contrast (one tool is available at http://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/). Never use color as the only means of conveying information. Ensure color-coded information graphics are still understandable when printed out in black-and-white.
  • Use appropriate document structure. A reader using a mobility aid can use heading tags to skip through a document to the section she’s interested in rather than having to scroll and scan through the document. To facilitate this in Microsoft Word, use styles like “Heading 1” for your headings so those headings will be tagged appropriately; for PowerPoint slides use layouts. For a PDF, use the Tags panel to check that your headings are appropriately tagged, and make sure the headings are also used as Bookmarks. Headings also have to be nested appropriately: Heading 3 must follow a Heading 2, it can’t follow a Heading 1. Make sure elements of your document are placed so that the is no ambiguity about what order they should be read in. Pictures in a Microsoft Word document should be placed “in line with text.” Use the appropriate tools in PowerPoint, InDesign, and other programs to check the reading order of page elements.
  • Use tables correctly. Use tables for tabular data, not layout. Conversely, use table tools for tabular data, don’t create tables using tabs and line spacing. Use table property settings to define a header row, as well as header column if appropriate. Avoid merging cells and leaving cells blank.
  • Add descriptive text to images. Use the image properties dialog to set “alt text” so that a screen reader can describe images for a reader who can’t see it. Correctly composed alt text is a concise description that conveys the same meaning that someone viewing the image would get. Don’t include phrases like “photo of” or “drawing of” in the description unless the fact that the image is a photo or drawing is important to its meaning. Descriptions of information graphics should include specific information such as names of data series, data range, and important trends.

Resources for more information

Your most important resources for help in making your document meet accessibility requirements are your client’s specifications and the documentation and online help for the particular program you are using. Beyond that, other useful resources include:

Catherine Sprankle can be reached at cssprankle at yahoo dot com. Read more articles by Catherine Sprankle. End of article.

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