In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Now known affectionately as Section 508, it directs all Federal agencies to ensure that their websites and electronic information are just as accessible to people with hearing or vision impairments so that we don’t create second class citizens when accessing government information.
Enforcing 508 Compliance
This is a laudable approach, but in practice, enforcing 508 compliance has been an uphill struggle, and will continue to be for the forseable future. Here’s a headline from 2007 that explains the basic problem: “Web technologies outpace accessibility law and require a major rewrite of 508 standards“. The pace of innovation always outstrips our standards. This has been and will continue to be an ongoing issue. Complicating things further is in practice, many website efforts start by envisioning fancy interactions only to be stymied later in the development process when they realize their tool of choice isn’t compliant.
Enforcement costs lots of money: Even with the existence of a wonderful site that explains all aspects of 508, many companies now exist in large part for the sole purpose of helping Federal agencies understand and implement 508 compliance. A myriad of different types accessibility checkers have been developed. If you conduct a Google search on 508 Compliance, it returns 394,00 documents. GSA has been tasked with the tough job of enforcing 508, but as late as 2008, found that over 80% of the solicitations for electronic and IT development contained no provisions for accessibility.
~The Right Goal~
Make the Web Fully Accessible to Everyone
Currently the problem frame is that we haven’t been able to enforce 508 compliance standards on Federal websites. Even if we become 100% successful, the best we get is accessible Federal websites. This still leaves large swaths of the internet less accessible to those who are completely blind, color blind, or hearing impaired. The best we can do is “hope” that commercial products and websites test their software for 508 compliance, and that others worry about what is essentially a long tail concern.
Innovate on the Browser & End-User Hardware Side
We’ve been tackling the wrong side of the equation. Instead of spending millions on education and enforcement, we should instead spend the money and prompting innovation in the browser and specialized hardware. Web accessible innovations in web browsers and associated specialized hardware solutions could make the entire web fully accessible to those with disabilities. My guess is even if we spent 10 million prompting innovation through contests similar to the Wearable Power prize or the DARPA Grand Challenge, we would still be saving lots of money overall. Even if the resultant solutions require subsidies to reduce purchase costs, this would be no different to what we currently do with providing motorized wheelchairs to those who need them.
Examples of Possible Innovations: There could be a variety of innovations that address specific disability concerns. Examples might include:
- Color Transform Browser Plugins for Color Blind users: If someone has red-green color blindness for instance, wouldn’t it be great if the browser automatically changed colors in graphics and text into colors more easily seen? We could imagine a control panel that allowed the user to choose which colors they wanted to see instead.
- Braille Displays that Display Graphics by Converting Each Color into Different Depths: Imagine a blue-yellow-green Venn diagram concentric circle graphic that’s so prevalent in business - only this time the colors are represented as a different height in the braille display. Translating colors into heights make them accessible.
- Automatic Speech to Text Translator plugins: Imagine if YouTube videos and podcasts could automatically create mostly accurate subtitles.
Again, my imagination is limited - I’m sure true innovators could come up with far better solutions.
Federal Accessibility Challenge: The Federal Government should unleash the power of innovation by creating a Federal Accessibility Challenge, where a million dollars is awarded to the best browser solution for each disability category (color blindness, hearing impaired, for instance), and perhaps a three million dollar prize for the best hardware solution for hearing impaired or blind web users. In both cases, the money should be doubled if the solution is an open-source software or open source hardware design.
The bottom line is the goal should be that those with disabilities should be able to get as much benefit and satisfaction out of using the entire web as the rest of us. We should shift the approach from enforcement, and instead spend our energy on innovating.