Section 508: Making the Internet Accessible for People with MS
By Ellen Kampel & John M. Williams
If you’ve ever visited a federal government web site, you may have found it to be more accessible than others, particularly if you’re using a screen reader or voice command software.
The increased accessibility of federal government Web sites is not a coincidence. Instead, it is the result of Section 508, a component of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 mandates that all electronic and information technology produced and disseminated by the federal government and its agencies be accessible to persons with disabilities, giving them the same access comparable to other visitors to the sites. This is an added benefit for people living with MS as they can experience vision or dexterity challenges that limit their ability to navigate the Web.
In order to be considered 508-compliant, these sites must offer content and navigation elements that accommodate people with disabilities. Among other things, it requires that sites offer a “text only” version of each page to bypass the site’s images and flash features, which can interfere with screen reader technology. Section 508 also ensures that all graphics are “tagged” with descriptive phrases, so that people with low vision or blindness can get a sense of how the page actually looks.
To date, these standards only apply to federal sites. While private sector sites are not required to follow the same accessibility guidelines, some have voluntarily chosen to adhere to Section 508 in order to make the online experience more accommodating for their visitors with disabilities.
Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft. John M. Williams has been writing about assistive technology for 28 years. He coined the phrase assistive technology.