Section 508 - Culture Change Required

At New Editions we are committed to making electronic information accessible to people with disabilities.  We support the implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible. The law (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)) was enacted in 1998 and applies to a range of hardware and software.  The goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have comparable access to information that is available to others.  Policy makers envisioned that the law would stimulate EIT vendors to develop accessible (i.e., 508 compliant) products to sell to the government.  Federal government agencies, in the attempt to comply with this law, developed their own requirements to meet IT accessibility standards. This approach has led to a high degree of variability in the methods for testing conformance with EIT standards and in management and organizational compliance approaches used by Federal agency Section 508 teams. As a result, accessibility levels vary and IT vendors receive mixed messages from different government agencies on acceptable levels of IT standards compliance. The usual agency by agency approach to compliance was not accomplishing the envisioned end goals of the law.

New Editions, a leader in Section 508 compliance, has worked with many different agencies over the years to help them meet the standards associated with Section 508. In 2009, as part of our work with the Office of Accessible Systems & Technology (OAST) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we began to work on a new strategy to improve accessibility—Trusted Tester. The idea behind this was to create a standard testing process, develop and implement training, and eventually promote the testing process to all Federal agencies.  New Editions spent several years with OAST developing a comprehensive testing process.

In 2012, this idea began to generate interest from others. In 2012, DHS started working with the Social Security Administration (SSA) to come up with Baseline standards and create a Unified Test process that could be deployed across the Federal Government for all agencies to use. There are two major benefits of this approach. First, if all agencies test in a similar way, then IT vendors would be more likely to create accessible products.  As it stands now, because agencies use different standards, a vendor’s product may be deemed accessible by one, but not another. Vendors have no reasonable assurance that they can get a good return on investment for their accessible design efforts.  If vendors know that multiple agencies will accept their product, the return on investment increases. Second, if agencies test in a similar way, then duplicate testing from one agency to the next can be eliminated.  For example, if DHS tests a program, SSA could use the results and trust that they were done to the same level as one of their own testers.

With the creation of the Baseline, the testing process was updated and expanded.  The current DHS OAST training class offers an online Standards course, five days of instructor led and hands on testing, and a one-day certification exam. Since 2013, over 200 people have been trained and certified as Trusted Testers. OAST also offers an online version of the course which has made the course available to people who do not live in the National Capitol Region. 

OAST now has agreements with the Department of Labor, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, U.S. MINT, Department of Education, State Department, and Department of Justice.  In September, I and New Editions’ Vince Prentice had the honor of representing the OAST team and presented the Trusted Tester program to the White House! We reiterated the importance of the Trusted Tester program and a unified approach to testing for compliance. While the White House doesn’t fall under the agencies that are required to follow 508, in recent years they have realized the importance of accessible EIT. It is good to see the White House dedicated to providing their content in an accessible format. Shortly thereafter, we spoke with Microsoft. When we met with them in 2006, nothing changed. This year they agreed to send someone to the Trusted Tester training.

At New Editions we have always understood that Section 508 compliance was about changing the culture. Nine years later we are beginning to see that culture change. We hope to leverage these successes to further expand the Trusted Tester Program across the government to help fulfill the promise of Section 508.

Chad Lamb is a Senior Accessibility Technician with nine years of experience in Section 508. Chad is currently the Project Manager for New Editions’ Trusted Tester Contract with DHS OAST.