Section 508 and project planning
If you just received a contract that states Section 508 compliance as a requirement and you haven’t worked on such a project before, here are some quick tips to help you get on the right track. This information is geared towards project managers, developers, and designers who want to tackle such a project.
The road to success is to include Section 508 Compliance into your project right from the initial discovery or scope phase of your project since it will have some implications on how you approach all other project phases, be it requirements, design, implementation, testing, or maintenance.
1. Does Section 508 apply to my project?
Besides the fact that achieving accessibility in your IT projects is always a good practice, complying with Section 508 can be a legal requirement. It should be clearly stated in your contract. If it is not and you are heading up a federally or state-funded IT project, determine why it is not stated in the contract. Once you have a clear understanding if your project falls in the Section 508 category, you can determine the scope of effort during the initial requirements phase of your project. If you are not familiar with Section 508, get a quick overview at Section508.gov.
2. How do I include Section 508 in my project plan?
Once you have determined that your project needs to consider Section 508, work with somebody who has experience in implementing Section 508 requirements to determine a strategy from the beginning of your project. Section 508 compliance will influence requirements, design, implementation, and testing during all project phases and iterations. To get an idea of a good Section 508 compliance workflow take a look at my workflow example:
3. What resources do I need to achieve compliance?
- Front-end web developer with accessibility implementation experience.
- Tester with Section 508 testing and screen reader experience.
- Screen reader software for developer/tester (based on client requirements, e.g. JAWS or Fire Vox).
- A clearly defined process that details how to achieve and maintain compliance.
Testing a site in a screen reader can be a complex task, because you have to determine what screen readers to test in (some of them, like JAWS, will cost you more than $1000), and the web designer and tester have to get familiar with using screen readers.
Oftentimes, to not get paralyzed by fear of the learning curve associated with screen readers, it might be good to do an initial implementation that is standards-compliant and at least fully supports keyboard access, which will prepare the site well for screen reader testing.
4. How do I maintain compliance?
To maintain compliance as the product is updated and bug fixes are applied, there has to be a written protocol in place for developers to ensure that they do not overwrite any existing functionality that is related to Section 508 compliance and that they do not introduce new features that are not compliant. Developers should have a checklist at hand that lists all checkpoints for compliance in a quick overview format. Compliance documentation should also be included in configuration management.
Resources for Section 508 Documentation
- Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) – used by companies to document their 508 compliance efforts. You can google Microsoft’s Product VPATs to get an idea about how to use the template for web apps (e.g., their Sharepoint VPAT would be a good example for an RIA web app). A lot of government agencies post their VPATs for their websites.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Checklists for accessible documents (e.g. Word, PDF docs posted on websites and portals).
- List of E & IT Initiatives by State provided by Georgia Tech.
- And I like WebAIM as a jumping board to dive deeper into the world of accessibility.