Accessing Assistance

Even if you ignore the alliteration in the title, you cannot really disregard the fact that technology and the opportunity to access it is an essential need in every individual’s life. Similarly, Online and Print formats of User Assistance provided for these applications also need to be tailored to the accessibility standards. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 realized this need and included the Section 508 to encapsulate accessibility standards within its folds.

Section 508 – Defining Accessibility Standards

Section 508 is a federal law requiring electronic technology used by the government to be made accessible to people with visual disabilities and/or mobility Impairments. In 1986, the section was added as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act. However it proved to be ineffective owing to the absence of proper enforcement mechanisms. Therefore in 1998, it was introduced with new revisions and established as the new Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.


The section lays down several relevant standards and guidelines to make all products or services equally available to all individuals.

Some of the accessibility standards summed up from the ones defined in the URL mentioned above are as follows:

  • Software should enable keyboard navigation
  • On-screen movement should be well-defined and programmatically exposed in order to enable assistive technology to track it
  • All images provided in the Software should be accompanied by screen text or alt text. This ensures that all information conveyed by the image is made available in text to enable assistive technology like screen reader to read it.
  • All information conveyed through animations, should also be available in a non-animated format.
  • Color coding should not be the only mode of conveying information.
  • Avoid the use of blinking or moving text animation

Let us take a look at some of the ways in which we can make user assistance adhere to these standards.

Creating 508 Compliant Word Documents

Microsoft Word is possibly the most widely used word editor. There are three primary things we need to keep in mind while creating User assistance in Microsoft Word.

  • The document has to be structured
  • Descriptive text has to be provided for all images
  • Create structured tables with labels and column headers

Structured Document

All documents should be properly structured and categorized under topics and sub topics. The list of topics has to be documented under the table of contents with appropriate page numbers for easy navigation.

Descriptive Text for Images

All images which convey information should have a descriptive text also known as “alt text”.

Structured Tables

Word offers perfect table creation functionality. You should use this to create meaningful table structures instead of drawing tables and using tabs to indicate columns.

Creating 508 Compliant PDF Documents

A Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the most preferred document format as it can be easily viewed online (it is an open source file format) as well as offline (easily compressed to be transferred via email).

PDF documents in order to comply with accessibility standards have to be tagged properly. A Tagged PDF refers to any document which follows a logical structure comprising title page, chapters, sections and sub sections. This will enable assistive technology like screen readers to help disabled readers navigate the document. The primary objective of assistive technology, therefore, is to identify the underlying structure of a document and accordingly convey the meaning in an alternative format. Consequently a structure is always a pre-requisite for complying with accessibility standards.

Creating 508 Compliant Online Help Files

Online Help files are also included within the ambit of 508 compliance standards. RoboHelp, the most popularly used Help Authoring Tool, has an inbuilt feature which facilitates easy conversion of 508 compliant files. Some of the features which the author needs to take care of while creating accessible Help files are listed below:

Provide descriptive text for all non-text elements on the help page, namely images, image maps, hyperlink text , form elements and so on.

All multimedia content should be accompanied by supporting text. For example, video content like tutorials and demos should be supported with sufficient number of captions ; audio content should have descriptive transcripts so as to facilitate access to people with hearing disabilities.

  • Any Frames, if used, should have a frame title that clearly explains the purpose of the frame.
  • Animated text in any form should be avoided. It can cause seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.
  • All font sizes should be relative and not absolute. This will enable text to be enlarged or reduced using the text size option in visual browsers.

Robohelp provides support for most of these. The Help author needs to analyse the exact audience requirements and implement the appropriate compliance standard.

Accessible helps are usable. More the usability more the selling potential of your documentation. More than that, it is the right thing to do as in some corner of the world there is always someone who would benefit from the accessible helps you develop.

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