How to Use Assistive Technology to Comply with Section 508

Did you know that blind people can surf the Internet and deaf people can enjoy videos? Have you wondered how people with disabilities use mobile devices? Assistive technology (AT) empowers people with disabilities, yet it presents challenges for producers of online content. The technology provides endless opportunities to gain access to services and content, but often organizations misunderstand or don’t know the accessibility guidelines or how to test for accessibility.

The Importance of Assistive Technology for Compliance

Designing and coding a website to comply with Section 508 is important so that it will be accessible and usable to people who use assistive technology (AT), such as screen readers, but you might wonder why website producers would use AT for compliance.  Accessibility starts by testing digital content for compliance with the Section 508 standards or WCAG 2.0 guidelines using toolbars and favelets to identify issues in the underlying code. These tools are certainly helpful but when it comes to conforming to the Functional Performance Criteria required by Section 508 and ensuring that people with disabilities can use AT with the product, it is critical that AT is used for testing. Just like making sure a website displays properly in a variety of browsers, development and quality assurance teams should test with AT to ensure that these tools produce an accurate representation of the page.

Section 1194.31 of the 508 standard, Functional Performance Criteria, states that for any product there must be at least one way for users with disabilities to interact with it. People with disabilities use a variety of AT to interact with digital content such as websites:

  • Users who are blind use Screen Readers
  • Visually impaired (visual acuity no better than 20/70) will often use Screen Readers and/or Screen Magnifiers
  • Hearing impaired need alternatives to sound included in the content
  • Physically impaired may use only the keyboard, special input devices, or speech recognition
  • Cognitive disabilities may require the use of text-to-speech tools

Testing with Assistive Technology

In order to successfully test your digital technology with AT, you must be knowledgeable about the assistive technology and know how to use it.  Put yourself in the shoes of the person that relies on the technology and try to understand what is required for that AT to work properly.  Whenever possible, use people who use the AT daily or those who have expert knowledge of the AT.

Let’s take a look at the different ATs and how they work. 

Screen Readers

Screen readers produce an auditory version of the digital content. There are several screen readers on the market:  JAWS, NVDA, WindowEyes, and VoiceOver. While you may choose to test with a few, make sure you test with at least one. Like any software, screen readers are updated often so check that you have the latest version before you begin. Test in multiple browsers including Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows for Windows-based screen readers and Safari on the Mac for VoiceOver.  

Screen Magnifiers

Screen Magnifiers use tools and browser functions to magnify the screen for people who have low vision. People with low vision may also use alternative stylesheets that make the text easier to read, change color schemes, magnify the screen using browser zoom settings or use the operating system high-contrast settings.

Test with No Sound

While "no sound" is not an assistive technology, it is important to test the digital content without sound to make sure people who are deaf or hard of hearing have equivalents to audio and video content. 

Keyboard Only

To make sure people who cannot use a mouse can navigate and interact with the digital content properly, it is necessary to test using only a keyboard.   The tools and devices that people with limited dexterity use vary but most mimic the keyboard input.  If the product works with the keyboard, it should also work with these devices.

Dragon Naturally Speaking

Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS) allows users to interact with a website using voice commands. Before testing with DNS make sure the program is set up properly for interacting with web content:

In setup > options/commands:

  • Check: Enable HTML support
  • Check: Enable multiple text matches
  • Uncheck: Enable Cut shortcut commands
  • Uncheck: Enable Delete shortcut commands

In options/miscellaneous:

  • Check: Voice-enable menus, buttons and other controls
  • Uncheck: Exclusion choice Internet Explorer

Text-to-Speech

Text-to-speech tools include products like Kurzweil 3000 or Read&Write GOLD. They help people with cognitive disabilities understand the content by highlighting and reading text aloud. 

Assistive Technology Resources

While testing with AT is a critical part of complying with Section 508 and creating an accessible website that can be used by all people, there are many facets to a compliant and accessible site. For more information on accessibility and guidelines please refer to the following resources:

Articles and Resources

Information on Assistive Technology

Accessing Higher Ground Conference & Resources

  • See the Accessing Higher Ground website for information on our annual conference on Assistive Technology and accessibility
  • Watch videos of recorded sessions at the url above

Online Classes on Accessible Web Design

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