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Is your Oracle system compliant with Federal Law?

Oracle Tips by Burleson Consulting

As part of my volunteer work as founder of the Guide Horse Foundation, (a charity to provide Guide Horses for the blind), I have frequent interaction with visually impaired people all across the USA. During these interactions, I because aware of an important legal exposure for Oracle and Oracle Application Server developers. Many Oracle systems have front-end interfaces that are extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a visually impaired person to use.

Many Oracle and Oracle Application Server developers may be exposing their companies to multi-million dollar lawsuits by failing to comply with Federal Laws that are designed to ensure access for the disabled. Under these statutes, employers are required by Federal law to provide ?reasonable accommodation? for visually and hearing impaired employees, even if the company does not currently have disabled workers.

Oracle and Federal Law

With these laws, it is the job of the Oracle and Oracle Application Server developer to ensure that their systems are accessible to the blind and deaf employees, as required by the American?s with Disabilities Act (ADA). Current case law suggests that this requirement applies to internal Oracle systems, while the Federal Courts are split about whether Internet systems are covered within the ADA.

Just as the owner of a business can be sued if they do not provide wheelchair ramps, the owners of Oracle systems on the web can be exposed to legal action if their system is not accessible to the disabled.

The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), has published a great article on this topic titled, ?Is Your Site ADA-Compliant ... or a Lawsuit-in-Waiting??.  This site sums-up the issue quite elegantly:

?That beautiful new law firm site that your high-priced designer just created may be impossible for a person using screen reading technology to navigate; particularly if they are blind/low vision or have a specific learning disability.

Those ?frames? or neat drop-down Java menus on your site may be impossible to use via voice command software. Your fancy ?streaming audio? online CLE courses or video conferencing events may be impossible for a deaf person to hear.?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA was developed to ensure equal access for disabled people. Originally intended to ensure physical access to public places, the ADA has evolved over the past decade to increase in scope.

With regard to Oracle systems, the ADA has been interpreted by the courts as applying to in-house computer systems. In other words, all in-house Oracle systems must be usable to the visually and hearing impaired. Making a system ADA compliant is a phenomenal challenge, and some companies make special text-only versions of all screens to make it easier for the visually impaired to use a screen-reader such as Jaws to speak the text from the screen. For the hearing impaired, tone-based alerts must be suppressed and replaced with visual queues.

All in-house Oracle system must be ADA compliant, even if your company currently does not have any disabled employees. If your company were to hire a disabled employee and they were unable to use your Oracle system, your company could be exposed to millions of dollars in system modifications and a huge lawsuit.

The ADA requires all companies to make ?reasonable accommodations? for the disabled, including modifications to computer systems:

  • Modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of the position, or
  • Modifications or adjustments that enable employees with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as those enjoyed by other similarly situated employees without disabilities.

Because of this law, Oracle shops are publishing standards for accessibility of their Oracle databases. Even cities are passing standards for development, and the City of San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley published the City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard. From this standard, we see seven minimum requirements to ensure accessibility for the disabled:

1. Provide an Access Instruction Page for Visitors (includes email hyperlink for visitors to communicate problems with web page accessibility)

2. Provide support for text browsers

3. Attach "Alt" tags to graphic images so that screen-readers can identify the graphic

4. Hyperlink photographs with descriptive text "D"

5. Caption all audio and video clips by using "CC" hyperlinks

6. Provide alternative mechanisms for on-line forms (such as email or voice/TTY phone numbers)

7. Avoid access barriers such as the posting of documents in PDF, table, newspaper or frame format or requiring visitors to download software. If posting in PDF, the HTML text or ASCII file must also be posted.

While many of these guidelines are optional, the scope of the ADA is expanding to cover new ground. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contains an important sub-section commonly referred to as Section 508. Section 508 guarantees all disabled US Federal Employees that all of their computer systems will be accessible. Let?s take a closer look at Section 508.

Section 508 and Oracle

Section 508 is important to any company that develops Oracle systems for use by US Government bodies, and many analysts believe that Section 508 may soon expand in scope to cover non-Government systems.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) is a task group charged with interpreting the ramifications of ADA and Section 508. The ITAA includes a representative from Oracle Corporation, and they published a prediction of the increasing scope of Section 508:

?At first blush, the Section 508 issue may appear to be limited to the federal procurement process. ITAA and its Task Group believe that changes in Federal procurement standards will ultimately affect the broader consumer software and technology market as well. The ultimate regulations promulgated under Section 508 will be adopted by many states in their procurement processes as well as most educational institutions receiving funds from the U.S. Department of Education.?

To best understand the rules of Section 508, let?s look at Oracle?s corporate policy for systems development. Oracle has developed an Accessibility Program to address Section 508 and ensure that systems are usable for the disabled. Oracle states ?Oracle's goal is to ensure that products and services are accessible to the disabled community with excellent usability. Industry standards will continue to evolve over time, and Oracle is actively engaged with other market leading technology vendors in addressing technical obstacles.?

Oracle published a highly-detailed whitepaper titled ?Accessibility in Oracle Forms Applications? in 2002 that states the following guidelines for Oracle development using Oracle tools:

In order to meet the needs of the disabled, all forms should have the following capabilities:

  • A screen reader should have access to the value and `prompt' for each item, so that a blind or low vision user can hear it. In this paper that is referred to as the 'speakable prompt'.
  • All functionality should be accessible from the keyboard only, so that a user does not have to manipulate a mouse or other pointer device.
  • All color usage should be under the control of the user, so that a low vision or color blind user can see all of the content.
  • There should be no reliance on timed functions, so that a user does not need to respond in a set amount of time.
  • Flashing or animations should be avoided, or if present allow a mode that disables them.

Oracle Forms provides sufficient attributes to meet these accessibility requirements, namely:

  • When an item takes focus, Oracle Forms passes the current value, the speakable prompt, and other attributes of the item to a screen reader.
  • Every item is operable from the keyboard, either by allowing navigation to it or allowing invocation via access keys.
  • Every item can specify 'automatic' as the color at design time, so that at runtime, the right color is chosen from the user's control panel settings.

It appears that the blind advocacy groups and gaining significant support for expanding the scope of the ADA and Section 508 to cover all computer systems. Let?s take a close look at the current status of case law on making web systems accessible to the disabled.

Federal Law and Oracle Internet Systems

With the requirement to make in-house Oracle systems accessible, many blind advocacy groups such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) are attempting to stretch the ADA laws to cover internet systems. In 2003, the Federal circuit courts are split over whether the ADA can be ?stretched? to cover electronic systems and the Internet. The ADA clearly covers all public ?places? (restaurants, hotels, parks), but the case law is evolving.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an international group that has published guidelines for web content, web authoring and web usability. The WAI believes that web accessibility includes the following areas:

  • Web sites and applications that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with;
  • Web browsers and media players that can be used effectively by people with disabilities, and that work well with assistive technologies that some people with disabilities use to access the Web;
  • Web authoring tools, and evolving Web technologies that support production of accessible Web content and Web sites, and that can be used effectively by people with disabilities.

There is a great Network World Fusion article titled ?Lawsuit attempts to force web site accessibility? that has a foreboding message about web accessibility for the disabled: ?While the Web masters may be winning the battle, they also may be losing the war. When a Web site isn?t fully accessible, it locks out a percentage of potential customers. It is estimated that there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. Can you afford to dismiss that many customers? These lawsuits show that it?s time for e-commerce sites, particularly those operated by large, deep-pocketed companies, to come into or stay ahead of compliance with Section 508 of the ADA.?

Lawsuits and web systems

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a leading advocacy group, has instituted lawsuits against purveyors of public electronic communications, with mixed results:

  • Diebold - The manufacturer of Automatic Teller Machines ( ATMs) was sued by the NFB because their ATM machines were not usable by the blind. In a settlement, Diebold agreed to donate $1,000,000.00 to the NFB and agreed to equip ATM?s with voice-guidance capabilities.
  • America Online ? AOL was sued by the NFB and nine blind people because they were unable to use AOL without the assistance of a sighted person. In a landmark decision, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet.
  • Access Now v. Southwest Airlines ? A Florida lower-court ruled that a web page is not a ?place? under the meaning of the ADA.  Currently under appeal to Florida Supreme court.

Where do we go from here?

Companies that wish to present a community orientation and to posture themselves as friendly to the disabled and already underway in ensuring that their sites comply with the ADA and Section 508 guidelines.

However, tin the near future it may not be enough for an employer to voice-enable their Oracle systems using the popular ?Jaws? screen reader for the visually disabled, or disable sounds to accommodate the deaf, and the Oracle and Oracle Application Server developer should strive to meet the ?reasonable accommodation? standard of the ADA to ensure that their interfaces are friendly to the disabled, and that their employers are protected from litigation.


Access Now Inc.

The text of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

ADA accommodation requires a good faith interactive process:

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PUBLIC LAW 99:506):

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) task group

Web Accessibility Initiative:

City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard: 

Oracle Accessibility Program:

Section 508 Law:

Lawsuit attempts to force web site accessibility ? Network Fusion:



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