Section 508

5 ways the cloud complicates accessibility

Five years after the administration instituted the Cloud First policy, federal agencies across the government are buying in to cloud computing at an accelerated pace. But, when it comes to the government, progress can't mean leaving people behind.

The cloud policy itself acknowledges this with a mandate to "define unique government regulatory requirements" when considering a cloud solution. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, this includes Section 508, which requires federal programs, systems and information be accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.

Download: Cloud Computing and Accessibility Considerations

"This qualifies as a 'unique government regulatory requirement' and accessibility is considered to be fundamental to this solution," according to the NIST Cloud Computing Program (NCCP). "As work progresses in cloud computing, it is important to promote, incorporate and discuss applicable standards in accessibility for cloud computing services as a discipline for investigation."

NCCP brought together a public working group to tackle this issue and came up with five recommendations for federal IT managers to consider when looking at cloud solutions to ensure disabled employees and citizens have equal access.

Version Control

A benefit of cloud computing is automated updates from the provider that get pushed down to agency systems. While these often bring improvements and security patches, they can also disrupt accessibility apps and can be difficult to roll back.

Reliance on Browser

Because cloud apps have to be accessed through a connection — rather than the local hard drive — users often have to go through a browser, which adds another layer to the "accessibility value chain."

"For example, conventional computing may link an operating system, a screen reader and a spreadsheet program; a comparable cloud computing chain consists of an operating system, a screen reader, a browser and a cloud-based spreadsheet," the NCCP guidance explains. "Note that browser interposition is not always a negative; browser settings such as enlargement and browser-based screen readers are sometimes easier to find and use than other options."

Platform Quandary

Having a unified platform is good for an organization but can cause problems for people with disabilities, who now have to become experts in that platform and the associated accessibility options. If these people are "savvy users," this might not be an issue. But users who aren't adept with technology "may have difficulty identifying which device — and version and workplace applications and utilities and assistive technologies… — will best fit the workplace requirements and his/her own accessibility needs.

Use of Thin Clients

Thin clients — in which the device is merely used to display information and receive inputs, while the actual computing takes place on cloud servers — are an essential part of many cloud systems. However, if a client is too thin, accessibility tools might not work as they should.

NCCP researchers note this is a particular problem with screen enlargers, which "can be almost unusable if run on the remote server." In these cases, the assistive technologies have to be installed at the server level, rather than just the local device.

Rich Data Visualizations

Visualizations are a great way to make large data sets more digestible for the user but only if that user can see the visualization. There are tools and methods for getting around this but those aren't always available in a cloud setup.

Similar to the thin client issue, if the associated data lives on the cloud servers and isn't accessible to the user, assistive tools might not be helpful.

"That is, if a screen reader user had access to the data, he/she might be able to make sense of it," NCCP explains. "But the visualization is the only access provided."

Along with these considerations, the draft document has an extensive list of "general guidelines" to help IT managers identify issues and find the appropriate assistive tools.

The guidance also includes some solution sets, such as the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) — a program to make accessibility tools available on any platform, in any situation — and Accessibility Application Programming Interfaces (AAPIs) – a set of tools within operating systems to enable developers to build accessibility features.

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