Section 508, software documentation, and the US software market

Since June 2001, US law ('Section 508') requires that all IT products that are sold to US government agencies are accessible to people with disabilities.

Contractors who want to sell IT products to the Federal government must supply products that conform to the applicable technical requirements.

If you sell software to non-government organizations, conformity with Section 508 is not necessary.

How Section 508 affects software documentation

Section 508 affects software documentation in two ways:

'Accessible' software documentation

In the context of software and software documentation, 'accessible' means giving access to people with different disabilities, such as blindness, partial vision, deafness, or the use of only one hand. For example, support can be given for the following things:

How to achieve accessible software documentation

The table shows some of the ways in which software documentation can be made accessible. For some help formats, it is not be possible to conform to the accessibility guidelines.

Accessibility guidelines and examples
Guideline Example
Give equivalent alternatives to auditory content and visual content. In HTML, use ALT text with images. ALT text lets a screen reader tell the user what the image is about.
Use markup and style sheets instead of directly formatting items of text. In a Word document, do not use tab characters to align columns. Use Word's Column option. This lets a screen reader output the text correctly.
Make sure that users can control time-sensitive content changes. In a Flash demonstration, give users the option to prevent automatic transitions.
Make sure that documents are clear and simple. Use a logical reading order. Do not write:
  1. Open the 'Administration' dialog box.
  2. Before you open the 'Administration' dialog box, …
Make sure that the text is not ambiguous. Do not write, "The file is saved when the dialog box is closed." The sentence has two possible meanings:
  • The user closes the file when/before…
  • The software (automatically) saves the file…
Design for device-independence. In HTML, do not use browser-specific enhancements.
Give clear navigation mechanisms. On a website, use a navigation bar to show the current page.
Do not use only colour to give meaning. Do not write, "Press the green button to start":
  • If there is only one button, do not use the word 'green'.
  • If there is more than one button, a colour-blind person needs more information about which is the correct button.

Resources This website is all about Section 508. The Adobe accessibility web pages give guidelines for accessible content. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops specifications, guidelines, software, and tools for the web. This part of the W3C website contains the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. IBM's documentation accessibility guidelines. The free Markup Validation Service checks HTML documents (web pages) for conformance to W3C standards. Ability Net gives IT information that is related to computing and disabilities.

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