If you have worked on a government project since 1998, you have probably heard someone say “508 compliance.” If you’re experience is similar to mine, that utterance was probably followed by a groan.
It’s true, sometimes taking the extra time to make a material compliant with Section 508 guidelines can feel like an undue burden—especially when you’ve very likely already labored over the development of that material in so many other ways. But I think this feeling comes only when we allow ourselves to forget why the government requires us make things 508 compliant in the first place.
For those not familiar with Section 508 Compliance—and for those who have heard the term but never an explanation—let me give you a quick background. In 1998, Congress amended the U.S. Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. This means that federal agencies cannot buy, develop, maintain, or use electronic or information technology that is inaccessible to people with disabilities. So basically, Section 508 requires that we, as professionals who create materials on behalf of government clients, make sure that these materials can be accessed and understood by people who have visual, hearing, cognitive, and/or motor disabilities.
I’m certain no one reading this blog is so callous as to begrudge a disabled person access to information. But I’d be willing to bet that few non-disabled readers truly understand what it might be like to try to access information when you have a disability. Be honest. Have you ever tried to access a website without the use of a mouse? Have you ever listened to a PDF reader “read” a document? So, let’s do a little experiment so that we can all gain some small amount of empathy.
Imagine for moment that you have a motor disability that prevents you from using a mouse. Go ahead. Put your mouse aside. Now, using only your keyboard, I want you to navigate from this web page to your favorite website and click on a link that is about half way down that page. I’ll give you a hint: you need to use the tab key to move from link to link. When you’re done, don’t forget to come back and finish reading. Okay. Ready, set, go!
Welcome back! How’d it go? For those of you who are lucky enough to have a favorite website that is Section 508 compliant, you probably noticed that it took quite a while to get to the link you wanted. But at least you could get there. For those who have a favorite website that isn’t fully compliant, you might not have been able to get to your link at all. And this is just one possible issue that might be encountered by someone living with a disability when trying to access information.
So the next time you hear someone say, “We need to make sure this is 508 compliant,” stifle that groan and remember:
- More than 1 million Americans are legally blind, nearly 3 million are color blind, and more than 11 million have visual conditions that are not corrected by glasses.
- About 28 million Americans are deaf or hearing impaired.
- Almost 33% of adults have at least one basic actions difficulty or complex activity limitation.
- Almost 14 million people over age 5 have difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
And know that of these millions of people living with disabilities, it is very likely that someone will greatly appreciate the work you did to make your information accessible.