Desperately Seeking Compliance: Section 508 and Website Design

Web design is often like car shopping: Splashy colors and flashy bells and whistles tend to draw the most initial attention. What happens, however, when your audience can’t see the splash and flash or hear the bells and whistles?

Such is the conundrum faced by designers who develop websites for the federal government. Those tricks of the trade that we so often take for granted—introductory movies, animations, moving graphics, and so forth—are usually not an option for federal agency-related sites as they are currently incompatible with the federal government’s Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

This amendment responds to the federal government’s growing preference for electronically disseminating information to their constituents as a means of providing instantaneous access to information and reducing the environmental and financial impacts of massive print runs. Section 508 ensures, among other things, that all federally run or affiliated electronic outlets—and associated materials—can be understood in their entirety by all members of the public, including those covered specifically by the Rehabilitation Act.

What does this mean from a web design perspective? First, it means no Flash media. As of the writing of this post, Adobe still has not figured out a solution to make its Flash software completely Section 508-compliant. The company continues to work on this and has made several inroads; however, Adobe has still not achieved 100 percent compliance for Flash.

Additionally, adhering to Section 508 compliance means that should web developers still decide to add a bit of pizzazz to their sites, they must do so using programming and coding elements that won’t impede site layout when the plug-ins that show these elements are turned off. For example, if developers choose to use JavaScript to enable animation on a site, the site must still be fully functional if a viewer has disabled their web browser’s Java capabilities.

Danya staff recently faced such a challenge with a website redesign for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of University Partnerships (OUP). The challenge: Redesign the site so that it resembles HUD’s template but retains a level of individuality, and make the site appear attractive and functional while staying within the boundaries of Section 508.

The final result was this:

Click on the above image to visit the OUP home page and you will see many visually appealing but 508-compliant elements, including:

  • Animated elements that help to increase the visual quality of the site, such as the DDRG Spotlight images and text that are timed to reload automatically (click your browser’s “Refresh” button for an example).
  • Information tabs that are programmed to change when activated by the user’s cursor.
  • Tagged graphic elements with alternative text that can be detected by screen readers.
  • Java-encoded elements that have static links in other sections of the website to ensure that those visitors who have disabled their Java plug-ins can still access all portions of the site.

These are, of course, only a few of the challenges that developers face when working on online projects for the federal government. All Portable Document Format (PDF) files, for example, must be compatible with screen readers as well. Fortunately, Adobe has been successful in making Acrobat, the software that creates PDFs, 508-compliant. They have also built in 508-compliant functions, such as the ability to embed alternative text tags for images and graphics, in layout programs such as InDesign. Microsoft’s Office Suite also provides the ability to create 508-compliant documents that will allow screen readers to properly follow text flow.

As evidenced in the OUP site redesign, Section 508 compliance is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. With a little extra forethought and pre-planning, web developers can provide their federal government clients—and the consumers seeking government information—with websites that will meet their aesthetic desires while honoring the requirements of Section 508.

By Karen White

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3 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Compliance: Section 508 and Website Design

  1. This is a beautiful web site. It’s amazing to see how far government sites have come in terms of usability and aesthetics since Section 508 was introduced. You really did an amazing job.

    Just an aside, I don’t think that Adobe Acrobat is capable of making fully compliant PDFs out-of-the-box. The program is awesome for accessibility, especially with the new features of InDesign, but it still requires a bit of user-effort to get things right. Also, while MS Word does an amazing job (well, recent versions), it still doesn’t work fantastically either (export a second level list and you’ll find that the L tag isn’t under the LBody tag, or numerical lists don’t use the Lbl tag).

    The PDFs on this site could still use some work, but overlooking that issue and focusing on your website – this is truly a beautiful design!

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