Making Uncle Sam Accessible -- and Accountable

Now that federal agencies have guaranteed IT access to the disabled, pressure is mounting for the private sector to follow suit

By John Williams

This summer was an extraordinarily busy time for federal agencies as they prepared for the day when Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 became law. From that moment on, all vendors selling information-technology equipment to the federal government must ensure that it is accessible to civil servants with disabilities. These products include software applications and operating systems, Web-based information or applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, and desktop and portable computers.

The goal of the act, which became law on June 25, is to ensure that federal employees with disabilities (who 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.

PUBLIC PROTECTION.

  Section 508 also requires that individuals with disabilities who are seeking information or services from a Federal agency have access to, and use of, information comparable to that provided to the nondisabled. Exceptions can be made only if an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.

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. These include 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.

BROADER REACH. Sound ambitious? It is. Section 508 is a 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 will flourish around accessibility. 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