- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

Most federal agencies will have to redesign their Web sites within the next six months to comply with guidelines issued yesterday that will make the pages more accessible to people with disabilities.
The rules are designed to make it easier for the blind, the deaf and those with other disabilities to use federal technology services such as Web sites and databases.
"I think this is a truly significant step forward. It helps not only the disabled, but all federal workers," said Sally Katzen, deputy director for management at the White House budget office and chairman of the federal council of information technology officers. "This is where the federal government should be."
Many of the changes will be easy, officials said, and reflect good Web design practices. But others, especially involving devices that can't currently accept alternate methods of input, may be costly to change.
Advocacy groups for people with disabilities said they were pleased with the standards.
"These regulations are necessary to implement the law at minimal cost, and fairly," said Brewster Thackeray, spokesman for the National Organization on Disability, adding that they should also help the disabled find work in the government.
The rules "will ensure that the Web sites are accessible," said James Gashel, director of governmental affairs at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore. "These standards will be absolutely ideal."
Mr. Gashel, who is blind, said he frequently has trouble using flashy graphics-laden Web sites. He uses a device that reads the text of a page to him, and he uses his computer keyboard to select links or skip through long passages.
While the Web's programming language includes a way to associate a few words to explain each image invisible to the casual user when the graphics load on a page many Web designers fail to include that data.
The new standards require that those graphics be labeled. The rules also state that areas in color should be provided also without color, and that complicated tables and similar Web constructs should have text legends.
Many federal sites offer government documents in Adobe Acrobat format, showing the document as an image faithful to how it looks in print. But these files also are unreadable for Mr. Gashel, so the sites must soon also offer them in plain text.
Mr. Gashel and federal officials pointed out that these practices will benefit not only the disabled. For example, people who browse the Web on handheld wireless devices, which can't show pictures or color, would be able to navigate federal Web sites more easily.
Only federal Web sites and property are affected by the guidelines, which were devised by the interagency U.S. Access Board. They take effect June 21.
Doug Wakefield, who helped devise the standards at the Access Board, could not say how many federal Web sites will be affected but estimated that hundreds of agencies and at least 4,000 Web sites, some with many separate pages, will be included.
The most expensive elements to change will be self-contained systems like the Park Service's mobile information kiosks. Overall, Mr. Wakefield said, compliance could cost the government $100 million to $600 million.
"This has never been tackled before, so it's very hard to even establish a baseline for something this new," he said.

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