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An Approach to Accessibility

As you may have heard last week, Google announced that they have added ‘Auto-Captions’ for all videos on YouTube. Google’s hope is to increase its user base and has chosen to focus its attention on accessibility with hopes that users with certain disabilities will leverage the site and find it useful. The reality is that Google is looking to increase its pool of potential users in hopes of increasing advertising revenue. Regardless this is a step in the right direction and a victory for accessibility advocates.

Some of the details within the article include Google’s explanation of the new feature:

  • While we plan to broaden the feature to include more languages in the months to come, currently, auto-captioning is only for videos where English is spoken.
  • Just like any speech recognition application, auto-captions require a clearly spoken audio track. Videos with background noise or a muffled voice can’t be auto-captioned. President Obama’s speech on the recent Chilean Earthquake is a good example of the kind of audio that works for auto-captions.
  • Auto-captions aren’t perfect and just like any other transcription, the owner of the video needs to check to make sure they’re accurate. In other cases, the audio file may not be good enough to generate auto-captions. But please be patient — our speech recognition technology gets better every day.
  • Auto-captions should be available to everyone who’s interested in using them. We’re also working to provide auto-captions for all past user uploads that fit the above mentioned requirements. If you’re having trouble enabling them for your video, please visit our Help Center here.


Although I cannot say this very often, the Federal government adopted accessibility 12 years ago, and therefore, is eons ahead of the commercial world in this regard. For those of us who have supported the deployment of any type of application (client/server, web site, web application, COTS, etc.) within the Federal government the concept and the rules associated with accessibility should not be a new one:

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.(http://www.section508.gov)

That being said, achieving 508 “compliance” has often been a challenge for many Federal organizations for a variety of reasons:

  • 508 Testing typically occurs just prior to system launch in many Federal system development lifecycles (SDLC) and is often not planned for appropriately
  • Many to most COTS products are not accessible or are only partially accessible
  • Many software development and web based companies have shied away from making their products or sites accessible due to the additional cost associated with doing so after the fact or they wouldn’t even know where to start to begin with
  • Finding Developers with intimate knowledge of accessibility methodologies is a challenge for most organizations (good luck finding them)
  • Finding Accessibility experts with the appropriate technical skills is often challenging (again, good luck finding them)
  • The tools that are leveraged to test sites/applications for accessibility compliance are not necessarily completely accurate (e.g. – just because an application tests compliant does not always mean it is usable)

So what are Federal Agencies to do?

A Path Forward

It is no secret that I recently left Microsoft Federal Services after spending three years deploying Microsoft-based solutions in a variety of agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and within several U.S. Intelligence agencies. It is also not a secret that many Microsoft applications are not completely accessible. Needless to say, I have felt the wrath of many a government managers when they realized the accessibility deficiencies (often just prior to going live) in whatever application we might have been deploying at the time.

So when I joined Sapient Government Services last May, as the CTO and Director of Technology, I set out to see if we could marry Sapient’s known expertise in user-experience and technology with the appropriate accessibility expertise to see if we could develop ‘Sapient’s Approach to Accessibility’. The goal:

To increase the chances of projects successfully “passing” the accessibility hurdle (on the first go-round) we all face when deploying systems in the Federal space AND to maintain compliance throughout the lifecycle of the system.

So what does ‘Sapient’s Approach to Accessibility’ look like?

It is simply a proactive approach to achieving Section 508 compliance; an end-to-end methodology that’s goal, via collaboration with the client, is to refine their regulatory direction in order to cost-effectively integrate accessibility into all systems and to maintain compliance throughout the life of that system. This is achieved by injecting the “Accessibility Lifecycle” into the clients existing SDLC ensuring accessibility is not just a ‘check-box’ but something that is thought of and planned from end-to-end:

  1. Accessibility Strategy
  2. Technical Approach
  3. Implementation
  4. Quality Assurance & Validation
  5. Deploy & Maintain

I am very excited to announce that our ‘Approach’ was recently briefed, in great detail, to GSA. We received incredibly positive feedback during our presentation and look forward to briefing additional agencies in the near-future.

In this day and age of the Open Government Directive (OGD), it is imperative that the government be open to all citizens, including those with disabilities. Sapient’s Approach to Accessibility’ can help achieve this mandate ensuring OGD is open to all.

If you would like more information please feel free to contact me.

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