Rules require equal access for disabled

Federal procurement policy makers are drafting new acquisition rules that will require agencies to buy information technology that can be used by employees with disabilities.

The rules, expected to take effect a year from now, would carry out a provision of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, known as Section 508, that says disabled employees must have the same access to information and data as those without disabilities. The regulations are to be based on product standards recommended in May to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, also called the Access Board, the agency that develops national accessibility guidelines.

The upcoming rules may have little impact on agencies, which would not be forced to buy products they could not afford or demand solutions that are not technologically feasible. But because the government is a large IT customer, the regulations could result in a wider array of products that address disabled employees' needs.

"This will definitely drive the market to create more innovative ways of addressing accessibility," said David Bolnick, accessibility product manager with Microsoft Corp. "Once there are market forces behind it, companies like Microsoft, Lotus, and IBM will try to compete and do better than the other person. That is what is going to drive accessibility into the mainstream." Microsoft served on the advisory committee that suggested the product standards.

Although agencies for many years have been required to provide accessible technology to their employees, it has never been clear what they had to do to comply, Bolnick said.

While there are many IT companies that make products such as keyboards, screen readers and closed-captioning systems that adapt computers and telecommunications equipment for people with disabilities, not all commercial hardware and software products are compatible with this equipment.

Douglas Wakefield, technology accessibility specialist with the Access Board, said officials do not yet know the extent to which vendors would have to rework their products for the federal market, although products that meet industry standards will be easier to adapt than unique systems. "In general, the thing to always keep in mind is the legislation is pointing to the procurement, not the vendor," he said. "If one vendor says it's going to cost us more to do it and another vendor says it's not going to cost us more [the second vendor] will get the bidding advantage."

That leaves vendors worried mainly about "the unknown," according to Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president with the Information Technology Association of America. Grkavac noted that when the Federal Communications Commission issued rules last month about the accessibility of telecommunications equipment, the agency addressed industry concerns, but "there were proposed regulations that could have been more onerous."

Wakefield said the regulations probably would have minimal impact on agencies. Contracting offices will have to devise ways to determine whether they are complying with the law, but agencies already have ways to test products and handle complaints from employees who feel they are not being accommodated.

"Generally, we can accommodate virtually anything that comes down the pike statutorily," said Scott Thompson, director of contract management at NASA. "Typically, statutes working with the disabled are things that NASA supports."

The Access Board plans to propose final product standards in November. At the same time, Wakefield said, the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council is expected to propose the new procurement regulation. After a 60-day public comment period, a final rule will be issued by Aug. 7, 2000, the date by which agencies must comply with Section 508.

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