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Federal sites' accessibility to improve

Guidelines that aim to make all federal Web sites more accessible to people with disabilities are pushed forward.

Guidelines that aim to make all federal Web sites more accessible to people with disabilities were pushed forward today.

The U.S. Access Board's Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee submitted its final recommendations to bring the government into compliance with a little-known 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, section 508.

Section 508 requires that any technology the federal government buys or uses must be accessible to people with disabilities. The section also states that Web sites erected by U.S. government departments and agencies must be accessible to people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities.

However, the provision does not apply to sites created by companies that do business with the government.

The proposals being considered would ensure, for example, that graphics are coupled with text tags, which can be recognized by screen readers used by people with visual impairments.

The full Access Board will craft standards based on the proposals and submit final guidelines by late summer.

"The report promotes human-centered design," Lawrence Scadden of the National Science Foundation, who chaired the advisory committee, said in a statement.

In the United States alone there are 54 million people with disabilities, according to the Census Bureau. And although not all will be impacted by the changes, it's no surprise that better access to Web sites is a goal being sought by both federal and voluntary efforts.

Many say the government efforts will trickle down to the private sector--and for good reason. Proponents of accessibility say if Web sites are easier to navigate they could attract more visitors, as well as the advertising dollars and e-commerce sales that often follow.

"It's a large market audience--you could be cutting off a lot of business if you're not accessible," said Greg Reeves, an accessibility expert at K2 Design, which was responsible for the National Business and Disability Council's site.

"Any savvy Web programmer should be able to do this," he added.

Compaq Computer, the American Council of the Blind, IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and the United Cerebral Palsy Association are among the 25 contributors to the report. The World Wide Web Consortium, which released its own accessibility technical guidelines last week, also contributed.