Q&A: Ensuring Section 508 Compliance and Accessibility for All Users
One of the most important aspects of QIP’s work is ensuring that virtually everything the company produces—documents, infographics, digital materials, videos—is accessible to everyone.
“The goal is to make sure the user experience is the same for all users,” QIP User Experience and Training Expert Denise Lawson said.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires all federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
“Section 508 compliance sounds technical and bureaucratic, but what it means in the real world is that people with disabilities are able to reasonably and equitably access information produced by the federal government,” QIP Vice President Tom Szuba said. “Implementing 508 standards improves communication, is realistic to achieve, and put simply, is the right thing to do.”
At QIP, the intent is not merely to adhere to the law.
“I think it’s important to remember that accessibility and 508 compliance are different,” QIP Communications Specialist Meghan Edwards said. “508 compliance sets the minimum standard to help a user’s experience; accessibility means going above that to determine the best ways for users to interact with your content and understand the information you’re trying to impart.”
In recognition of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (May 20), Denise Lawson, Meghan Edwards, and QIP Videographer Matthew Frazier offer their perspectives on the importance of accessibility and how it impacts their work.
Why are accessibility and 508 compliance important?
DENISE LAWSON: 508 compliance is about making sure that electronic information and content is accessible to all. For example, to make content accessible for visually impaired users, websites can be designed so that they work well with assistive technologies such as screen readers. Similarly, audio content should be designed to meet the needs of hearing-impaired audiences. To simplify the explanation, accessibility is about providing multiple ways of accessing the information so that audiences with different abilities can still understand what is being presented.
MEGHAN EDWARDS: Accessibility and 508 compliance is one of the most important things to keep in mind when creating content. It means that you are doing your part to allow everyone access to the information you’re sharing, which isn’t always a forethought, especially when it comes to digital content. We should always be writing and designing for inclusivity, even if we’re not required to.
MATTHEW FRAZIER: 508 compliance and accessibility is important because it allows people with disabilities to have the same access to important information and data they need to execute their jobs within a federal agency.
How much of your work is required to be accessible/compliant?
DENISE LAWSON: Accessibility isn't optional. Whenever I am working on a project that involves digital/electronic media for a federal agency, that media must be designed to be 508 compliant.
MEGHAN EDWARDS: Most of the work we do on my contract needs to be compliant, as they are either placed on a government website or considered “official” documents for the program.
MATTHEW FRAZIER: The majority of my time is spent animating and editing videos. Before those videos are complete, finalized and uploaded to the appropriate YouTube channels, I make them 508 compliant.
At what point during a project do you start taking accessibility into account?
DENISE LAWSON: Planning for accessibility should start at the beginning of a project. Accessibility can impact many aspects of how digital media is designed. You have to think about the presentation format of the information as soon as possible in the process. The format of the presentation will help to determine the requirements for making the media accessible. For instance, if you are posting a .PDF file on the web, it still needs to be accessible. Some people think 508 compliance only applies to websites. They might assume that documents in common formats such as .PDF do not have to be accessible. A person who is using a screen reader or other assistive technologies will not be able to access the content of a standard .PDF that has not been modified to meet accessibility guidelines. If the screen reader can't read the .PDF document, then the user misses out on all of the content contained in the document.
Video content poses additional challenges since video typically includes both visual and audio information and may require closed captioning for hearing impaired audiences, as well as descriptive narration for visually impaired audiences.
Generally, it is easier to design for accessibility at the beginning versus redesigning for accessibility later.
MEGHAN EDWARDS: I usually consider accessibility from start to finish, from considering ease of navigation when I outline a product, to using plain language when I write, to ensuring that the final product is compliant before it’s published.
MATTHEW FRAZIER: While working on a video, I make sure the script and closed captioning are accurate so the viewer with disabilities can follow along seamlessly. When the video is complete, I work with our clients to make the video accessible to the public.
What are the key factors to take into account when making digital material/documents/videos accessible?
DENISE LAWSON: As previously mentioned, content type will drive some of the requirements for accessibility. Content developers need to think about things like color contrast, size of text, and how different types of media and interactive elements of a webpage might work. If you are designing content that includes a lot of images, for example, you need to think about what information is being presented in those images. Would a visually impaired person be able to understand the content without a description of what is presented in the pictures? At the most basic level, images need to be tagged with alt text, which can be read by a screen reader to describe the contents of the image.
MEGHAN EDWARDS: I think one of the most important things is to consider your audience. How easily will someone with a screen reader be able to access your document? What about someone who is color-blind? Will they be able to understand the key points of your product, and will the product be useful for them? Each person will likely experience the product differently, and there are a lot of factors that people may not consider an accessibility issue (for example, animations in PowerPoint).
MATTHEW FRAZIER: The key factor to making a video accessible is to add closed captioning to it. Closed captions allow individuals with hearing impairments and people who are in sound-sensitive environments to view a video.
How can using plain language benefit the accessibility of a document?
MEGHAN EDWARDS: Plain language makes it easier for audiences to read, understand, and use your content. It allows you to open up your content to a larger audience.
How do you go about checking for accessibility?
DENISE LAWSON: 508 standards are widely published, and numerous tools exist to help organizations test for accessibility of their websites. Another very helpful method of testing for accessibility is to use a screen reader with your website to see if you can successfully use a screen reader to navigate through the pages.
MEGHAN EDWARDS: At QIP, we have a guide we use in addition to the accessibility checkers built into products like Microsoft Word. There are also a lot of free checkers out there, such as the ones provided at https://section508.gov/test.