Access Issues: Compliant Format for Web Docs
In 1998, U.S. lawmakers amended the Rehabilitation Act to add Section 508, which requires all federal agency websites to be handicapped-accessible. Just like federal property, the government’s web
content now must allow for equal access to anyone with a visual, auditory, or physical impairment or disability that makes traditional web surfing difficult or impossible.
That’s more of us than you might think, according to research commissioned by Microsoft and Forrester Research in 2003. They report that 27% of working-age American adults have a visual difficulty or impairment, 26% have a dexterity difficulty, and 21% have a hearing impairment.
A recent lawsuit involving Target Corp. indicates that the court might not let private companies shirk their disability-access obligations either. In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued the megachain for not being readable by screen-reading technologies that translated text into audible speech or Braille characters. The plaintiffs alleged that Target, by not updating its code to comply with screen-access tools, had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state civil rights and disability acts. Target settled for $6 million and was required to comply with NFB web guidelines.
“We believe that accessibility will become increasingly important, particularly as the population ages and companies seek to create webpages that give them broader market penetration and commercial advantages,” says Damien Fitzpatrick, director of products for Ephox Corp., a company that makes content compliance tools such as EditLive!. “The Target case serves as an important warning of the legal requirements for accessibility for all websites, not just government sites.”
W3C publishes the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG), which provide detailed public standards for handicapped web access. A number of U.S. companies have joined the voluntary W3C initiative, including Microsoft, IBM, and AOL. In 2007, the European Union (EU) began requiring official websites for EU institutions to conform to W3C guidelines.
“For organizations that are complying with accessibility today, such as government agencies, the accessibility issue is often addressed through having a small number of accessibility experts within an organization,” says Fitzpatrick. “Several government clients I’ve spoken to conduct up to two accessibility training sessions every week in attempts to train—and retrain—hundreds of authors. Accessibility has also introduced a significant new web bottleneck.”
Ephox’s EditLive! 6.7 provides a WYSIWYG editor for XHTML, which is at the core of its accessibility functionality. This key component allows sites to separate more clearly its style and formatting from the content, a critical distinction for screen-access technology; it also permits greater mobile and cross-browser compatibility. EditLive! also performs as-you-type accessibility-checks that function like as-you-type spell-checks and provides tools to build handicapped-accessible table formatting.
While the government has not yet passed laws dictating how private companies should deal with access issues, Fitzpatrick believes the private market could reap great benefits from more compliant content. “I’m discouraged that people still see this as a legal compliance issue and not an opportunity,” says Fitzpatrick. “I personally do not think we will see accessibility laws as onerous as those in Europe for some time in the U.S.A. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see accessibility emerge as a factor for American websites driven by commercial realities, particularly as the population ages.”
Ready to Comply: Tips From Compliance Pros
The common thread tying all these systems together—and to each other—is XML. “I think the future really is linked data—data that can go back to the source, make connections from the data to other types of data—and you can only do that if all the data sources have some common structure,” said JustSystems’ Mueller. “That’s what XML gives to these data sources. Because of that, people can start to see this compatibility. You’re building a house on a very solid foundation of structured data.”
While applying compliance to archives of data could be onerous, most sources agreed that upgrading to make data compliant with XML-based standards is an opportunity for businesses.
Exterro’s Balachandran advised companies to assess the full scope of their digital repositories before embarking on a compliance upgrade. “If you don’t know that, it’s a big hurdle,” he says. “Companies need to focus on getting a grip on their ESI—they need to know at all times where their data lies, who manages that data, and what policies govern their data.” He also suggests performing a risk-management analysis to find out where their most at-risk data lies. He says these needs were driving force in the development of Fusion Genome’s mapping functionality.
Iphix’s Garbellotto suggested companies balance short-term needs with long-term compliance concerns. “My advice is always to make an information decision on short-term solutions that need to be revisited in the medium term as compliance requirements evolve and that do not bring any internal efficiency,” he says. “Other solutions require more resources and planning but are capable of generating significantly greater benefits and lower costs, not only in the reporting process but in the internal reporting, auditing, or control system as a whole.”
Infotrieve’s Geagan-Chevez believes that companies have to assess how legal requirements specifically impact their data management and stop permissions violations—and other illegal digital maneuvers—from even starting. “In Content SCM, the specific rights granted in a publisher agreement for a given set of content can be directly translated and enforced in a systematic and automated way. For example, if a client negotiates a Reactive Use clause, this specific use can be configured so the system sources correctly from the applicable licensed content.”
Mueller recommends bringing the whole team on board to assess a more systemic change in an effort to tie XML compliance in seamlessly with the daily workflow and to begin making reporting upgrades made possible by XBRL data. “The next outgrowth, after the financial publishers, is then you have all this really rich data. You can compare yourself to your competitors, and you can start doing performance management analysis to do some internal assessments at a much lower cost.”
Mueller and the others are enthusiastic about the possibilities of connecting companies with XML and XML-related standards. “Compliance comes from being able to effectively reuse the data, without having to remap it, to rekey it, to retag it,” she said. “If you’re a multilisted company, you can use one source for data—whether it’s your accounting or document management system—in order to take advantage of this perfect moment in time when a very good, very strong standard is being developed.”
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