Monday, July 13, 2009



(PNN) The council’s on-line posting of documents in “image files” rather than “text files” is not just an issue of accessibility by the general public but may be an issue of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) according to Francine Wai, Executive Director of the state’s Disability and Communication Access Board (DCAB).

It turns out that “text” files are required for the visually impaired to use “Screen Reader” software that can voice aloud documents if and only if they are provided in the searchable “text” format, which allows users to "copy and paste” words, sentences and paragraphs.

According to Wai, all government “programs, services and activities” are required to be accessible to the disabled.

“It’s the contention of most people in our files that this is a program of the government,” she said. “We don’t consider (image files) to be accessible.

“It is our advice that this is a program, service or activity (that) is required” she said with one caveat- the law was written before there even was an internet so does not of course specifically mention the posting of documents on-line as being an ADA covered program.

Wai says that although “litigation is not 100% consistent” there has been at least one case involving Southwest Airlines that says that on-line services by private entities is not necessarily required to be accessible to the blind, the same standard does not apply to governmental entities.

“Any case relating to the private sector is not transferable” she said. “I can’t give you a legal opinion but I believe that within a very short time this will be the way government will release information”.

One of the main goals of Kaua`i County Council reform advocates Councilpersons Tim Bynum and Lani Kawahara has been the public’s “on-line” access to council documents.

In recent months PNN has delved in depth into the stonewalling of electronic access the full array of pertinent council materials by Chair Kaipo Asing and County Clerk Peter Nakamura and the local newspaper has provided some coverage as well since the Bynum and Kawahara “went public” with an almost encyclopedic list of obstructionist actions by the Asing and Nakamura, along with proposed solutions at their web site in early May.

When the council services responded early this month with the posting of a small handful of recent meeting minutes, outrage again boiled over, not just at the lack of anything but the minutes and “recap memos” and their outdated nature, but at the fact that they were posted in a format that is useless for anything but reading and printing them out.

Two “letters to the editor” in the local paper – one from IT Professor Ed Coll of Kaua`i Community College and another from Koloa Librarian David Thorp- chided the council for providing only “image” files rather than “text” files.

Only the latter format can used to search the documents by word and allows for “copying and pasting” exact quotations for the preparation of things like letters, testimonies and commentaries without having to re-type them.

Those letters seem to have spurred the council to re-post the small handful of minutes and recap memos that are now at the council’s web site, this time in “text” although there are still only five- the latest being from the June 16th meeting- whereas those at go back to January of 2006.

The problem there is that despite the fact that they were created in electronic form, to post the older ones even Bynum, a member of the council, could not gain access to the original electronic versions and had to “scan” paper copies and create an “image file” and then “convert” them back into text- a method that can sometimes lead to errors in the newly re-created text file when compared with the original.

The ADA requirements do have one exception for governmental entities according to Wai and that is that, if the provision of the service, program or activity would present an undefined “undue burden” on the government they may not have to provide it.

In this case its hard to see where any undue burden would be since almost all public documents- especially government documents but even those submitted from outside entities- are created electronically these days. For the few that aren’t the conversion software is easy and quick to use and is even available as free “shareware” if cost of the software is held to be an obstacle.

As a matter of fact the only undue burden to a government agency appears to be in denying text versions to the blind.

Wai explained that until on-line versions of text files combined with the Screen Reader software make for a “do it yourself at home” way for the blind to access documents, the main way the visually disabled are served is and has been via telephone.

That means that if a document isn’t available in Braille or a blind person can’t read Braille, access requires the vocalization of a document, which is the job of DCAB itself .

Wai says that much of her office’s time is taken up accessing such documents and reading them aloud over the phone, something that could eventually be a thing of the past if documents were all available in text.

While the state legislature’s “paperless” system was instituted this year, the administration and the counties have yet to adapt to such a program.

Wai did note that because of the higher than normal cost of the computer hardware that’s required- and to a lesser extent but still high cost of the software- there is still a big impediment in blind people obtaining the technologic instruments required to use on-line access to documents even when they are in text form

One solution says Wai lies in DCAB’s efforts to provide people with the systems that might actually pay for themselves by freeing up time and energy on all sides of the equation.

She also said that there some confusion on the matter because a whole separate federal provision in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires agencies who receive federal money to use accessible technology.

Title II of the ADA pertains to all government agencies but doesn’t mention ubiquitous on-line technologies which could not have been foreseen when the ADA was passed.

1 comment:

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