On Friday, IBM Worldwide Accessibility Director Frances West wrote an op-ed piece in News.com raising what IBM sees as a red flag: the numerous new accessibility policies in development within Europe.
Titled “Accessibility could take a step backward”, one is lulled into a sense that West is advocating advances in accessibility policy, raising the bar from Section 508, passed in the United States in 1998. However, read closer and you’ll see the real message here: IBM wants 508 to be adopted around the world, as is.
It is true that a different accessibility policy in each country in Europe would result in a terrible mess. It would mean that software companies would need to ensure that each feature meets the different requirements of each government, paralyzing the development of even the simplest applications, and fragmenting the meaning of accessibility to the point of irrelevancy. Software developed today and delivered via the Internet is, by default, international in nature.
However, it is important not to fall into the trap West lays with this argument. Standards harmonization does not mean sticking to the first thing that came along, that being 508. Accessibility laws must evolve to meet the needs of modern software development. Section 508 itself requires the Access Board to review and update the standard as necessary.
In the interest of harmonization, IBM should be urging the numerous accessibility bodies in Europe, as well as those in technology leaders such as Japan and the United States, not to settle on the least common denominator. Section 508 has in some senses been a big success, but in other areas it has failed people with disabilities, and as it becomes more dated, it is destined to fail more often. Its greatest benefit is that it sets a single benchmark with a relatively low degree of subjectivity. But that alone doesn’t mean it’s perfect; it merely makes it measurable.
We as advocates of accessibility should be aware of the dynamic between software companies, their consumers, and the regulations set forth to benefit accessibility. IBM is calling for a worldwide baseline of Section 508. What they and other vendors really need is one unified, measurable standard applicable to all of their markets. And it is to everyone’s advantage to work toward such a standard, provided it is as rigorous as necessary to fully meet the access needs of users with disabilities. Settling for the aging 508 is not a victory for international accessibility. For large companies like IBM, whose software already complies with 508, it merely enforces the status quo.