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Disability rules complicate federal websites’ smartphone and tablet displays

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With smartphone and tablet users making up a growing percentage of Internet traffic, many private sector websites have adopted responsive Web design, which can determine the type of device a visitor is using and then tailor its display accordingly.

A visitor on a smartphone might see fewer menu options, for instance, to better fit the phone’s tiny screen.

It’s been difficult for federal websites to follow suit, though, because most of the open source platforms for responsive Web design don’t meet the government’s rigorous requirements to ensure federal services are handicapped accessible, known as Section 508 guidelines.

The main problem is “screen readers”, which translate Web content into audio or Braille for the blind, can be confused by the systems, said Ken Fang, president of the mobile contractor Mobomo, who spoke during a General Services Administration webinar Wednesday on the government’s mobile strategy.

“It’s the bane of designers’ existence,” Fang said of the competing priorities of accessibility and responsiveness.

A handful of government websites have adopted responsive design while managing to remain 508-compliant, notably the Health and Human Services Department’s AIDS.gov, which relaunched in a responsive form in June.

The federal Web design community is working to create an open source template for 508-compliant responsive design that agencies can easily adopt, Fang said.

Responsive designs free agencies from having to create separate mobile versions of a website. They also might help them stay ahead of the game as the Internet integrates into other platforms such as television and, perhaps, appliances with some Web-connected functions such as an air conditioning unit that reports its own energy use or a kitchen counter that displays recipes.

“Responsive design is the foundation of a mobile strategy,” Fang said. “Because when we talk about mobile first, we’re not just talking about phones anymore. It could be your refrigerator we’re talking about.”

The government’s mobile-first strategy aims to make the majority of federal services and information available in device-appropriate formats. It’s part of the federal digital strategy unveiled in May.

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