Have you ever tried to use your computer with your eyes closed? Even with a screen reader, it’s incredibly challenging. The fact is, most computer applications are not designed with disabled users in mind. Trying to navigate the web using a screen reader gave me a new level of appreciation for the amount of effort Envisage Technologies, the company for which I work, has put into improving the overall 508 compliance of the Acadis® Readiness Suite.
Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies, programs that receive federal assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. An amendment to Section 508 requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible in order to eliminate barriers in information technology and create new opportunities for people with disabilities.
The Acadis Readiness Suite is an enterprise software application designed to streamline training management for first responders and other federal, state and local government agencies. While 508 compliance is a requirement for several of our customers, Customs and Border Protection made compliance a priority for this software suite. Their intent was to perform 508 compliance checks on Acadis, and our intent was to be prepared.
To achieve accessibility, the development team had to reconfigure the entire navigational architecture of Acadis. The way that Acadis had been initially developed masked many 508 compliance issues, and a technical overhaul was required to allow for resolution of these issues. However, these changes couldn’t be made all at once. There are significant interdependencies between the modules of Acadis, and making changes in one had the potential to impact the functionality of others. While some of the developers were making changes to the architecture, development of new features was also ongoing, so the entire suite could not be changed at once. In addition, customers were continuing to use Acadis while these changes were occurring on the back end, and for them, the integration of a new architecture had to be seamless. Acadis customers receive, on average, six new releases of software per year, and for a full year these releases contained updates to the architecture required to achieve 508 compliance.
Another challenge that the Acadis development team faced was testing for 508 compliance to measure progress. When 508 compliance became a focus for Envisage, the only way to have the software tested was to send the page code to a third party for analysis. For several reasons, this was not the best option for Envisage Technologies. First, sending the complete contents of pages for analysis had the potential to disclose code and test data, and that was a risk Envisage did not think was necessary. In addition, external testing is time-intensive. Sending the code for testing and waiting for results before making any required updates is not efficient and can cause a backlog of both development and testing work. As a result of these challenges and a desire to achieve a very high level of 508 compliance, developers at Envisage designed and implemented their own testing harness specifically for 508 compliance.
The result is that developers can monitor accessibility concerns in real time, making changes as needed before sending their code to the quality assurance team, who can also monitor any concerns as they are testing the pages. While significant progress has been made towards 508 compliance, new features are always being added, and 508 compliance must always be taken into account. Developers must be very calculated in their approach to 508 compliance, because they do not directly experience the software the way that someone who requires accessibility features would.
“Our intent is to comply with the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law when it comes to 508 compliance, meaning that we are not just interested in checking boxes, but in really making Acadis usable for people with disabilities,” said Michelle Cole, Chief Operations Officer at Envisage, when explaining why 508 compliance is so important to the company. Envisage has dedicated substantial resources (equivalent to over $800,000) toward pursuing compliance and takes a proactive approach to accessibility rather than waiting for a client to make a specific request for it.
Several of Envisage’s clients have now tested Acadis for 508 compliance, with a new Acadis client recently reporting only a single 508 compliance finding in their testing, remarking that Acadis® is one of the best sites he has tested all year. Envisage was pleased to determine that the solitary finding had already been addressed and was, in fact, in the next version of the software.
Envisage has had the benefit of having 508 compliance reviewers who have specific expertise and took the time to analyze the accessibility of Acadis. These reviewers were detailed in their review and were willing to speak with Envisage regarding their findings.
“Testing reviews are critical feedback for us, and when we have a tester who genuinely cares about the product and accessibility, we can collaborate and come up with solutions that are consistent with the spirit of 508 compliance and truly enhance the accessibility of Acadis,” said Rob Aney, Client Implementations Manager at Envisage.
Testing for 508 compliance occurs on an ongoing basis both at Envisage and in many government agencies, and while Envisage continues to find and address 508-related issues, developers can now better-understand the issues and what is causing them in order to resolve them in a proactive manner. Their unique approach to achieving 508 compliance has allowed for real-time testing and rapid repair, with the intent that the Acadis® Readiness Suite be a premier example of what a world-class enterprise application can be for users with accessibility needs.