Making Uncle Sam Accessible -- and Accountable

When federal agencies meet a deadline guaranteeing IT access to the disabled, the private sector will feel increasing pressure to follow suit

By John Williams

These are extraordinarily busy times for federal agencies as they prepare for June 25. That's the day that Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 becomes law. From that day forward, all vendors selling information technology equipment to the federal government must ensure the equipment is accessible to federal employees with disabilities. These products include software applications and operating systems, Web-based information or applications, telecommunication products, video and multimedia products, and desktop and portable computers.

The act's goal is to ensure that federal employees with disabilities (they number 167,000, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have the same access to information technology as federal employees without disabilities. At stake for vendors is the $40 billion annual federal IT market -- and billions more in revenues from 45 states that have either passed legislation similar to 508, or are considering doing so.


  Section 508 also requires that individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency have access to, and use of, information and data that is comparable to that provided to those not disabled. Exceptions can be made only if an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.

You can bet disabled Web users will be testing the federal agencies' Web sites for accessibility. In fact, there is outright fear within many agencies that they won't be ready to meet the avalanche of Web inquiries from people with disabilities. "I don't know of any federal agency that's totally ready for [the deadline]. We are all scared of lawsuits," says an Education Dept. spokesman. Other agency representatives have expressed the same laments.

So who's ready? The Defense Dept. and NASA have long histories of employing people with disabilities and may have an advantage over other federal agencies in being prepared to implement 508 compliance on June 25. Still, being ready does not mean that every federal agency will be accessible on June 25.


  The standards apply to federal Web sites only. Private-sector Web sites are affected only if a site is provided under contract to a Federal agency. Corporate America is assisting the federal government in complying with Section 508. Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Adobe, Corda, Crunchy Technologies, Compaq, Booz Allen & Hamilton, Hi/Software, and National Cash Register are among the thousands of vendors readying assistive-technology products and training programs. (See BW Online, 6/13/01, "A Chat with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer") "No single vendor will satisfy all of the requirements," says Robert B. Yonaitis, president and chief executive officer of Hi/Software, in Concord, N.H.

The criteria for Web-based technology and information are based on access guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Many of these provisions ensure access for people with visual challenges who rely on various assistive products to access computer-based information, such as screen readers. The criteria for telecommunications are designed to ensure access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This includes compatibility with hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive listening devices, and TTYs (teletypewriters for the deaf).

Multimedia products include video programs, narrated slide production, and computer generated presentations. Provisions address caption-decoder circuitry and secondary audio channels for television tuners, including tuner cards used in computers. The standards also require that access features be built into kiosks, transaction machines, copiers, and printers so that users don't have to attach an assistive device in order to them.


  Sound ambitious? It is. Section 508 is far-reaching piece of legislation intended to generate a ripple effect that will spread throughout the public and private sectors. The idea is to make vendors think about building accessibility into all their products, for both government and commercial use. The upshot: I believe that by 2010 accessible products will have become mainstream. A new cottage industry around accessibility will flourish. People with disabilities and knowledge of accessibility will do the training.

With 70% of adults with disabilities unemployed, many more should be able to find jobs in the government sector. Eventually, vendors will need disabled employees to help them develop and test accessible products. And as accessibility features are built into hardware and software, employers will no longer be able to claim they can't afford to provide reasonable accommodations through assistive technology to a potential disabled employee. Such technology will already be there.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online

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Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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