Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to United States federal government websites and to the sites of those who do business with the federal government. State and local governments have frequently voluntarily adopted these standards, and a few have made Section 508 standards official policy (some have gone even further and adopted additional provisions of the WCAG). For those agencies not required to comply, it’s just common sense that they should.
While federal and state agencies have put much effort into egovernment, local agencies still lag behind. This is due to budget constraints, lack of staff, and different priorities. I think some agencies hope this Internet thing is a fad that will go away before they have to worry about it.
The bad news is the Internet is going to stick around — and residents and businesses are expecting their local government to provide the same level of service they get from federal and state agencies. This is a contrast to the past where the most responsive government was local. There is something disconcerting about the fact that the IRS website is easy-to-use while I can’t figure out how to pay a parking ticket in my city. The good news is that meeting constituent expectations can save time, money, and effort.
Section 508 compliance means, very simply, that your city (town or special district) has built a website that is accessible by the greatest number of users possible. Blind. Deaf. Limited vision. Mobility impaired. Learning impaired. Cell phone users. PDA users. Technology-to-be-named-later users. It means your site will work equally well in Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Mac browsers, screen readers…access for everyone, no matter what.
So, while Section 508 focuses on disabled persons, the benefits of building a Section 508 compliant site extend beyond that group. Given the vast array of technology available today, and the fact that people access the Internet in so many ways, I cringe when I see a site “that works best in Internet Explorer.” The mere fact that it’s designed for one browser (and specific versions of that browser) tells me that the agency doesn’t particularly care about its constituents. It doesn’t particularly care that potential businesses and residents use the Internet to learn about a community before making an expensive move. It doesn’t particularly care that money is being wasted due to inaccessible information on its website.
Building a Section 508 compliant site isn’t onerous. Sure, it takes thought and planning. All successful projects do. But when you factor in the benefits — and the fact that maintaining a Section 508 compliant website is no more difficult than a non-compliant site — it makes sense that local government adopt Section 508 standards.
After all, isn’t time that local government regained its crown of being the most responsive government?