GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Design for diversity
City and county governments increasingly rely on the Web as a fast and effective way to share information — such as civic calendars, transportation schedules, and policies and proceedings — with residents. As those resources move online, local government leaders are realizing the importance of making their Web sites accessible to residents and employees with disabilities.
According to the 2000 Census, 19.3 percent of Americans have a disability of some kind, and 41.9 percent of Americans aged 65 and older are disabled. As Americans live longer, more people with functional limitations will stay in the workforce longer. A recent report by Forrester Research found that by 2020, one in five workers will be at least 55 years old.
Making Web sites accessible, therefore, helps governments keep highly skilled, disabled residents employed. For example, a 1999 Mississippi State University study found that roughly 70 percent of the blind community is unemployed because obstacles such as limited transportation information and challenges in communication historically have been insurmountable barriers.
In June 2001 Congress enacted standards for Web accessibility under Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitations Act. The standards provide a basic set of guidelines for HTML, plug-ins and other content commonly found on the Web so that people who have difficulty seeing a computer monitor or using their hands to operate a keyboard can benefit from federal Web sites. Accessible Web sites are designed to be compatible with the tools that disabled people frequently use to access Web content, such as screen readers, touch screens and head pointers.
Although Section 508 places no requirements on state or local governments, many have adopted the standards. In so doing, they can leverage a wealth of information and training resources, including Web sites that demonstrate how to improve Web page accessibility and plug-in tools that can automatically repair inaccessible Web pages.
When developing an accessibility policy, agencies should review Section 508 and other city and county policies, notably those by Phoenix (phoenix.gov/access.html); Austell, Ga. (www.austell.org/policies/ada.htm); Sauk County, Wis. (www.co.sauk.wi.us/accessibility.htm); and Jackson County, Mo. (www.co.jackson.mo.us/gov_wp_ap.shtml). Those policies set requirements for descriptions of images, font sizes and Web page design.
Many Web site designers find that although developing an accessible site is never difficult, the more developed the site, the harder it becomes to make accessible. Therefore, it is important to enact an accessibility policy as early as possible. Once a policy is adopted, Web masters should ensure that content authors are adequately trained and are familiar with other well developed sites. WebAIM at Utah State University (www.webaim.org), for example, can help designers connect with others around the country who are grappling with design questions.
Local governments that want to make their sites more accessible for residents and employees cannot go wrong when following basic accessibility standards. In the end, following those standards will help make information on the Web more available to everyone.
The author is senior product manager for San Francisco-based Macromedia.