Today the United States Access Board released their long-awaited update proposal for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That sounds dry and complicated, and it is. But it directly affects web conferencing as used in the United States of America, so I will try to take a quick swing through the legislation.
My usual disclaimers apply… I have no legal training or expertise and my views represent the personal opinion of an interested layman, nothing more. These laws are long and complex and are subject to competing interpretations. I will oversimplify concepts out of necessity to fit within a short blog post.
The newly-released Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Section 508 is part of a well-defined process for regulations that affect the public. The proposal is made public and everyone has a chance to submit comments, after which the rule may be changed before adoption as law. Hearings are planned for March 5 in San Diego and March 11 in Washington, DC. The new standards would be enforced six months after the update is adopted, affecting all new acquisitions by Federal agencies.
I might as well start with a direct quote from Wikipedia: Section 508 establishes requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the United States Federal government. It requires Federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.
So right off the bat, this legislation does not require compliance by individuals and businesses in the normal course of business, either internally or in communications with the public. It only comes into play with communications involving US Federal agencies and employees, or organizations receiving funding from the government.
The biggest question for those of us in this industry is whether webinars, webcasts, and web conferences need to be Section 508 compliant at all! In my opinion, the scope is unclear in both the existing and newly proposed regulations. I have a feeling that this will create arguments and possible court cases at some point in the future.
The wiggle room is provided by several loosely-worded paragraphs that allow for alternative provisioning of "ICT" (Information and Communication Technology). For instance, paragraph E101.2 allows for "the use of an alternative design or technology that results in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability by individuals with disabilities than would be provided by conformance to one or more of the requirements in… the 508 Standards."
Paragraph E202.5.3 says that "where conformance to one or more requirements in the 508 Standards imposes an undue burden or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the ICT, the agency shall provide individuals with disabilities access to and use of information and data by an alternative means that meets identified needs."
Even on the web page that attempts to summarize major issues in the update, they fail to address the question of whether information presented in real-time is covered. My opinion on the intent and general wording is that the web conference itself might not need to satisfy Section 508 compliance if ALL the content presented is made available afterwards in other (compliant) formats. That would mean a full recording for audio access, a full word-for-word transcript, and an audio descriptive track of any visual information that was displayed. If interactive Q&A was allowed during the session, there would need to be equivalent access allowed for persons with disabilities who wanted to participate. As you can see, complying with every possible use requirement could be quite difficult.
Assuming a webinar host did not want to reproduce all their content and interactions in alternate formats later, what pieces of the updated Section 508 requirements might prove difficult for web conferencing technologies? It turns out there are several interesting functional concerns.
Chapter 3 of the rule lays out "Functional Performance Criteria." They are daunting. ICT must allow use by people with no vision, limited vision (allowing magnification of content and compression to fit within a limited visual field). Users need to be able to change contrast and colors to cope with visual perception limitations. I don't know of many products that allow attendees to override colors or magnification of content.
One of my favorites is listed under "Limited Manipulation." The technology must provide at least one mode of operation that does not require fine motor control. That means no tiny arrows in the interface requiring a physical mouse movement within a couple of pixels and a click to move to the next slide. There needs to be a keyboard equivalent for next page. Waaaayyyyy too many vendors fall down on this functionality.
There is a lot of functionality that is accounted for under the general guidelines of "Interoperability with Assistive Technology." That basically means that the software doesn't have to provide all the compliance capability itself as long as it lets disabled users invoke and use hardware and software built to work with audio and text content to make it accessible to them. The elephant in the room is text content presented on PowerPoint slides. When an image of a slide is broadcast through a web conferencing technology, the entire slide is presented as a single image. Assistive technologies cannot "see" the individual words on the slide and turn them into speech. So I don't know how this would be accommodated under Section 508 compliance.
I would love to hear from any blog readers who work with assistive technologies or Section 508 compliance issues combined with web conferencing, webinars, or webcasts. What are the hardest parts of a webinar to make universally accessible? Do you think the new rule update is likely to help? And if you are a vendor, do you plan to change any product functionality to make compliance easier for your customers?