Geospatial information systems, also known as GIS, are a way for us to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. GIS benefits organizations and people of all walks of life and in almost every industry, but sadly, there are instances when the information gathered can’t be utilized by all who may need it.
In Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is required of Federal agencies to make their electronic information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. Considering that GIS output is usually in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts, the information is usually difficult to translate for someone with any sort of comprehension impairment.
With the compliance of Section 508 in mind, many companies who utilize GIS are developing ways to output the information so that the information may be accessible to all users. GIS created dynamically generated information and therefore involves the retrieval of data in various formats, which is dependent on user requirements. These visual representations contain large quantities of information not accessible to visually impaired people. This information can be represented in audio versions for those users to receive. Images produced by these products are dynamically generated, resulting in an output that will vary depending on the selection criteria determined by the user. This makes it impossible to prepare in advance a long description or other text alternative for those images which would provide “substantially equivalent or greater access to and use of” information contained in these pages and products. There are no products yet available that could dynamically generate a text alternative containing information comparable to that found in the image. A text alternative for even a static map image cannot adequately convey the information that is visually perceived. The nature of these products is visual; either a representation of geospatial data or database information plotted on a digital spatial coverage, such as a map. Currently there exists no alternate technology for generation of geospatial information in a format that allows access via assistive technology. Modification of these pages and products to comply with these standards would require a fundamental alteration to the nature of the product.
Although the technology isn’t there yet, that isn’t to say that work isn’t being done. Working towards making this type of data available takes time and will be a difficult task. Hopefully one day there will be a seamless integration of all users into this software, but as for now, we patiently wait for the time to arrive.