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Making government information more accessible

WCAG - Accessibility - cropped May 2016The federal government relies on technology to carry out its business and deliver information to citizens – and that means ALL citizens, including more than 13 million in the United States who have at least one disability. Nearly every federal employee plays a role in supporting accessibility.

For more than 15 years, the Section 508 law has set the standards by which federal agencies create web content that is accessible to both people with and without disabilities. Section 508 is still the benchmark for accessibility, but that may soon change because of potential new standards.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait until new requirements are adopted to apply them and to learn in the process.

Changing the Meaning of “Accessibility”

Accessibility standards are determined by the Web Accessibility Initiative Exit Disclaimer (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium Exit Disclaimer (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. The first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG 1.0, were published in 1999; they were updated in 2008 with WCAG 2.0 Exit Disclaimer.

One of the main differences in WCAG 2.0 vs Section 508 is that the updated guidelines are technology neutral. They apply to desktop, tablet, phone, etc.

The guidelines are also broader than just web content and include all electronic content (e.g., applications, documents, emergency notifications, forms, surveys, training materials). Here are a few of the new guidelines:

  • Users must have the ability to resize content so that it can be read without using assistive technology, such as a screen magnifier.
  • Each web page must have a descriptive title to help users find content and orient themselves within the page.
  • Language is identified for the page so that screen readers Exit Disclaimer and assistive technology can pronounce the words in their appropriate context.

A notice of proposed rulemaking on WCAG 2.0 was issued in February 2015 and is still being drafted. When the guidelines are complete federal agencies will have six months to comply. To conform to WCAG 2.0, agencies must make sure their public-facing digital content meets the  guidelines. The guidelines are broader than just web content and include all electronic content (e.g., applications, documents, emergency notifications, forms, surveys, training materials).

“WCAG 2.0 is important to the public health community and all Federal Agencies because including individuals with various disabilities allows them to access the latest digital information available,” said Kathy Lawler, HHS Digital Communication Division’s 508 Lead.

To find additional technical assistance resources on this topic, start with the United States Access Board. It defines standards for agencies to follow to keep them in compliance with the law. The HHS 508 team also offers a number of helpful videos and checklists.