Dec 31 2009

Meeting the 508 Challenge

New motivation techniques help agencies achieve compliance.

In the years since Section 508 was signed into law to improve
accessibility of information technology for disabled people, a
cadre of government workers has poured much effort into
motivating federal agencies to comply with this regulation.
Unfortunately, says Fred Di Fiore, electronic IT coordinator and
the man responsible for ensuring IT accommodation at the U.S.
Patent and Trademark Office, it usually takes a "big stick," rather
than any number of "carrots," to motivate federal IT departments
to comply with the law.

Although the law is widely viewed within agencies as just one
more in a long line of regulatory hurdles, "regulatory compliance isn't
something a federal agency can legitimately choose to avoid,"

Di Fiore says. "The Patent and Trademark Office has a zero-tolerance policy for noncompliance with federal regulations."

Di Fiore's efforts to motivate IT managers,
Web designers and procurement officials to
comply with Section 508 have worked so well
that they have become a model for the
General Services Administration's (GSA's)
governmentwide endeavor to ensure 508
compliance. (See box below.)

Cracking the Whip

Unless a rule has teeth—that is, severe
penalties for noncompliance—"most
organizations simply won't change their
processes," says Rick Tracy, senior vice
president of Xacta, an Ashburn, Va.-based
regulatory consulting and software firm
that advises federal agencies on compliance

Because federal agencies are inundated
with regulations, compliance is always
higher when—as with the Federal
Information Security Management Act—
noncompliance carries penalties that
include the loss of funding.

At the GSA, Section 508 awareness
efforts have crystallized into a step-by-step
approach to improving accessibility. The
agency's Section 508 Web site posts its
guidelines, called Step 508, along with
information on accessibility products,
tools, testing software, and services and
training to help agencies comply.

"Most agencies have institutionalized
508 compliance," says Terry Weaver, who
is director of GSA's Center for IT
Accommodation, which is charged with
motivating agency compliance.

To further those efforts, each agency
designates a Section 508 coordinator,
whose job it is to ensure compliance. The
coordinators incorporate GSA's guidelines
into their agency's policies, meet with other
Section 508 coordinators to share lessons
learned, and motivate internal IT staffs to
add accessibility capability requirements to
IT procurements, Web sites and software

USPS Takes a Unique Approach

Among agencies involved in ensuring 508
compliance, a wide variety of management
techniques have emerged. Stewardship has
worked well at the U.S. Postal Service's
(USPS's) IT organization, says Carla Sherry,
Section 508 program manager.

Sherry put a Postal Service manager in
charge of each technical area of Section 508
regulation. Each manager has in-depth
knowledge in one of four key areas: Web
site development, software development,
technology procurement efforts and other
accessibility opportunities. Each manager
must also create guidance documentation
and ensure that the USPS is complying with
Section 508.

"We now have clauses in all of our
procurements to reflect 508's provisions,"
Sherry says. "Our staff is trained to look for
508-compliant tools and technologies. We
also work with industry suppliers to make
sure that if no products currently exist, they
are working to improve accessibility."

Presenting data in graphics and charts in
a 508-compliant format was a challenge at
the International Trade Administration
(ITA), says Alan Vander Mallie, ITA's Web
manager and Section 508 coordinator.
Although there are several 508-compliant
plain-text enlargers and text-readers to aid
the blind and the deaf, Vander Mallie's staff
could find no commercial software that
could present graphical data in a 508-
compliant fashion.

So ITA Web developers turned to
MapInfo, a geographic information systems
software developer, to co-design software
that would let ITA's Web site, TradeStats
Express, provide 508-compliant graphical

The cost of developing 508-compliant
chart-reading features from scratch was
twice the usual Web site development price
tag, according to Vander Mallie. But the
extra effort was worth it, he says. The work
has blazed a trail for other agencies with
similar graphical data-presentation needs.

The effort may be worth it in other ways,
too. The Department of Justice is surveying
all federal agencies on the status of their 508
compliance and plans to release results of
its survey later this spring.

Enlist Help From the Industry

One road to 508 compliance is to seek
assistance from industry sources.
"Technology suppliers are working to
improve accessibility technologies," says
Mike Paciello, president of Paciello Group,
a Nashua, N.H.-based IT consulting firm
that specializes in accessibility.

There remains "an enormous need to
raise awareness of accessibility as simply
good business," Paciello says. One way to
get the message across, he adds, would be
more prominent promotional campaigns.

According to the Department of
Commerce, 20 percent of the population of
the United States—293 million people, as
estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau—are
disabled. That means nearly 60 million
people have disabilities that range from a
need for reading glasses to serious visual,
hearing or other cognitive disabilities. And
that number is sure to grow as the baby
boomer generation ages.


The Justice Department
survey will provide
information on federal
agencies' compliance in
four key areas:

• Procurement

• General processes for
implementing Section 508

• Administrative complaints
and civil actions

• Web site compliance.

Source: GSA's Section 508
Web site (


stew*ard*ship: the office,
duties and obligations of a
steward; also: the
individual's responsibility to
manage his life and
property with proper regard
to the rights of others.

Source: Webster's Dictionary,
Ninth Edition.


The Patent and Trademark Office has a four-step process to
ensure compliance with Section 508:

• Elicit top management buy-in

• Build awareness

• Assign responsibility for compliance

• Enforce the rules.

Tip: One good way to ensure Section 508 compliance in
software development projects is to create project milestones
for developers to review accessibility considerations.

Source: GSA's Section 508 Web site (