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FEMA Fixes Its Web Site

FEMA apparently got the message that its online aid application for hurricane survivors, which previously worked only on Windows PCs and Internet Explorer browsers, had to change. Actually, I suspect it got a few thousand messages, after the story appeared here and elsewhere. In any case, FEMA has now posted a statement on the Web site, stating that it is "in the process of modifying the
FEMA apparently got the message that its online aid application for hurricane survivors, which previously worked only on Windows PCs and Internet Explorer browsers, had to change. Actually, I suspect it got a few thousand messages, after the story appeared here and elsewhere. In any case, FEMA has now posted a statement on the Web site, stating that it is "in the process of modifying the application" so that people using other browsers and systems can access it.This isn't the first time a government agency has dropped the ball on building accessible, standards-based Web sites. A Copyright Office site being built so that content creators can pre-register certain works for copyright protection will also require Internet Explorer, at least for the time being. In that case, the problem reflected the government's decision to integrate its online tool with a back-end CRM system that won't work with other browsers.

FEMA's restrictions were, of course, both more onerous and less justifiable: By also shutting out Mac users, no matter which browser they used, the site could have caused problems for a small but significant number of Katrina survivors. Corporate politics and technology dogma aside, this was unacceptable.

It's both practical and, in many cases, easier for developers to build standards-based Internet applications. Besides making life easier for everyone by allowing access from a veriety of systems and client apps, standards-based sites are far more accessible to people who rely on screen readers and other assistive technologies. In a nation with an aging population and where 10 percent of Internet users rely on some sort of assistive technology, this is a critical issue for any government agency with an online presence.

For most government Web sites, and even for some private-sector sites, accessibility isn't just common courtesy and common sense -- it's also the law. Last month, Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel Weitzner of W3C noted this fact in a letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, regarding its planned pre-registration tool. And while most of us would be content to wait until the next software upgrade allows the office to fix the problem, it seems like only a matter of time before someone with less patience gets a federal judge involved in settling the issue.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed at FEMA: People with enough to worry about won't find themselves jumping through hoops just to fill out a form on a Web site. I hope the Copyright Office follows suit as quickly as possible, and I especially hope other government agencies will take a more far-sighted view when it comes to selecting, buying, and building standards-based Internet technologies.