close up photo of person using assistive technology

Implementing ADA Section 508 for Local Government: A Developer's Journey to Web Accessibility

My name is Katherine Shaw and I am a front end web developer at Promet Source. I'd like to start by sharing a little bit of my background, as it has helped me to understand why accessibility, on the web and in the world around us, is such an important issue. I am an advocate for web accessibility and in today's blog, I'll be sharing how I became so passionate about implementing ADA Section 508 best practices into my work as a developer, which all began when I was working for local government.

I was born in Waco, Texas into a military family. I was the first born in my family, and my brother followed close behind. I travelled the country and to Japan throughout my childhood, giving me a great sense of other cultures and environments at an early age. With this constant travel, I didn’t grow roots anywhere helping me to feel out-of-place for much of my life. This unintentionally helped me with accessibility because:

  • I learned many points-of-view: Being around so many different types of people in various cultures helped me to understand that there are many points-of-view in the world.
  • I didn’t feel understood: Always being the new kid was difficult at times, making it so that you don’t always feel understood.
  • I had communication issues: Whether it was moving to a new school or a new country, I know how it feels when you have issues communicating with others.

Web Accessibility - My "Aha" Moment

In March of 2012, I met Dan, who works for the CIO’s office of the GSA’s Section 508 and Accessibility. He presented on accessibility from the point-of-view of a blind user. This presentation completely changed my perspective from that point on.

Hearing the JAWS screen reader
He showed us how a site sounds with the screen reader JAWS, which really blew my mind! I got just a glimpse of what it’s like for non-sighted user to use a site.

Section 508 testing methods
Dan discussed Section 508 testing methods, and shared various tools that are available on the web.

What I took from it
I was intrigued by his entire presentation, and my eyes were opened to a new world. I’ve never turned back, and I’ve now become an advocate for accessibility.

Implementing Web Accessibility in Local Government

After getting inspired by Dan’s presentation, I immediately brainstormed ideas on how I could implement some of these ADA Section 508 and WCAG standards at the county I worked for at the time.

Implementing basic web accessibility standards
Since I was the sole Webmaster, I was able to implement a lot of those changes without any issue on the existing site. When building new county sites in Drupal 7, I made sure to develop with accessibility standards in-mind.

Educating the staff on Web Accessibility
My next step was to try to educate the staff on why scanned PDF’s and images weren’t accessible, why images needed distinguishing alt tags, why writing in plain language matters to all of our users, and why a service-based approach is better than a department-based approach

“Spring Cleaning” of content
I was able to come up with a “Spring Cleaning” concept for the big redesign which worked well at accomplishing a lot of these goals. I also built-in a lot of these standards into the site, including:

  • Required alt tags for all images
  • Skip navigation on all pages
  • Page titles on all pages, with home page’s hidden for sighted users only
  • Automatically added titles from content to links, which creates tooltips on hover
  • Created a uniform top site navigation that didn’t change across the site
  • Created linked headings to text blocks on all content pages
  • Created templates for every content type, resulting in a uniform design

Old habits are hard to break
Some employees had a difficult time with these changes, and continued with their old practices including scanning documents and images and writing text that was too long for users to read through and understand.

Employees think department-based
Some employees asked for their department to have a button prominently displayed on the top navigation or wanted their own custom layout that was different than the rest of the site.

They didn’t understand that these updates don’t follow accessibility standards and also confuse users.

Support for web accessibility is needed from the top
When you work with elected officials, you’re limited in what you can do if you don’t have support from the top down.

Getting buy-in from administration is the key to success. Otherwise you will be fighting a lost-cause a lot of the time.

An Inspiring Moment from my work in Web Accessibility

Not long after I began to implement accessibility best practices into my development work at the county, I received a call from a blind citizen who was trying to access our website. There was a form he was attempting to use that was causing problems for him, specifically with a select menu with a list of states in the US. He stated that the select menus weren't helpful for him because he could only read abbreviations for the states. I could immediately identify that the keys were abbreviations while the values were the full names of the states.

Identifying and fixing the issue in real time

Sighted users see the values as they see the full names, while blind users see only the abbreviations. This is an unfair setup. Because of his feedback, I matched the keys to the values for all select menus throughout the site. You can view the example code below:

Old:

<select value=”KS”>Kansas</select>

New:

<select value=”Kansas”>Kansas</select>

After we were finished troubleshooting through the issue, he was not only extremely happy that this issue was resolved for him and other users, but he expressed that he was thrilled that I took the time to work through the issue with him on the phone.

Getting Involved with Web Accessibility

As a member of Promet's web accessibility team and an IAAP Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC), I now get to work with clients to ensure their websites are accessible to all users. I work on several remediation projects for Promet clients from start to finish. Consulting with clients, as well as performing the actual remediation work, has been very rewarding for me here at Promet.

Knowledge Sharing and Documentation

In addition to my client work, I share my knowledge and contribute to accessibility at Promet on a regular basis. I have also created a new Menu Attributes a11y sandbox project, which will hopefully be committed to the main Menu Attributes module to assist with accessibility.

I’ve also created documentation on Web Accessibility Standards and other accessibility information for the Promet team, as well as other documentation at previous positions.

I believe it's that it's time for us to develop with an accessibility-first approach at all times, and I hope my work can inspire you to do the same!

Need help getting started with web accessibility for your organization? Contact us today.