Feds submit access plans for disabled

Federal agencies last week submitted to the Justice Department reports that explain how the agencies plan to comply with a law that requires them to provide disabled workers with access to computers.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 requires agencies to ensure that federal employees who are blind or disabled can access information and data on a comparable level to workers without disabilities. Moreover, Section 508 of the act requires agencies to provide data - such as information on the World Wide Web, for example - in a form that blind and disabled citizens can use.

DOJ plans to use the agencies' documents to write a larger report on governmentwide computer access for blind and disabled citizens. The agency must submit the report to the White House by Feb. 7, 2000.

"The value of [the reports is] ultimately going to be [seen] once we get all the data," said one of the DOJ department attorneys overseeing Section 508 compliance. "There's never been a requirement previously that an agency do this kind of work."

The reports were not available to the public. But agencies were expected to identify in the reports the technologies they have, or plan to install, to make it easier for blind and disabled federal workers to use computers to access information.

For example, the Census Bureau has an accessibility plan for conducting the 2000 census. That plan includes developing software standards for Census' World Wide Web site to make the site compatible with screen readers, which blind computer users depend on to transform text on a screen into computer-generated speech or to Braille, said Bill LaPlant, who manages a digital access project at Census.

The agency also is working with Stanford University on a project to develop technology for helping blind users work with computers.

The federal government does not track how many blind or disabled employees work for the government because equal-opportunity laws prevent agencies from collecting such information. However, many disabled people work for the federal government, and many agencies provide those workers with the tools and services that enable them to use computers more easily.

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