508 verification: website content must be accessible to the handicapped
Some federal agencies have their own agency-specific standards (see Standards and Requirements in “What We Do”). Additionally, there is the variable of 508 verification. If 508 is in your SOW, the files will be checked for conformance but the testing criteria varies. And the expertise of the testers varies – significantly.
Distinction between 508 certification and 508 verification: Certification is a declaration by the remediator who is making the document/website compliant. Per GSA, Section 508 certification doesn’t exist, so this declaration amounts to an assertion of whoever is issuing it. Verification is the process of testing for conformance by someone other than the remediator.
Testing is erratic, at best
Officially, accessibility is a national priority in both the public and private sector. In reality, website owners are motivated by; altruism, economics, or mandates. For those motivated by mandate, the question becomes, who’s checking and what criteria are they using?
The short answer is, accessibility law and standards are fairly well defined. However, knowledge of the law and standards takes both time and effort, neither of which are in unlimited supply.
- Shear volume makes it impossible to check the majority of files. Millions of PDFs reside on federal agency and private industry sites (ADA has defined private industry as “places of public accommodations” and must adhere to accessibility laws).
- About 2/3 of accessibility requirements can be checked by software. But what software is used? It depends on the importance website owners place on it. Most checkers know Acrobat’s Accessibility Checker is just the starting point. Despite its inadequacies, Accessibility Checker remains the only testing software some checkers use. For a more legitimate test that includes agency-specific standards, PAC 2 is used. [PAC 2 takes time to learn because it can/does yield misleading results.]
- About 1/3 of accessibility requirements must be checked manually. Additionally, part of accessibility is subjective so there is a need for judgment. Note: Assistive Technologies (like JAWS) are used by the blind to “hear and navigate” the contents of a file. An experienced AT user adds practicality to the testing process and is often included in the checking process.
The consequence of erratic testing is predictable. Most PDFs posted on public sites are not 508 compliant.
It takes effort to make your PDF 508 compliant, so why bother?
Regardless of how well the source files were created, the resulting PDF will need “work” to make it compliant. This is the last task before posting the final file. There are few documents that aren’t thoroughly vetted, and that process usually ends in a time crunch. So if the file may never be properly tested, why bother?
Non-compliance carries risk.
- If the file is failed at the checking stage, unplanned time/cost must be used to fix it.
- If a file is not properly checked and later found non-compliant by a user, the potential for really bad things exists. Suffice it to say, the risk is big.
- Professionals know the law, and how to make your PDFs conform to it.
- Experts do the job correctly for less time/cost than non-experts.
Bottom line: Improved technologies, increased awareness & enforcement, and acceptance of uniform criteria will inevitably push accessibility to a higher level of importance for all site owners.