When is enough enough?

Section 508, a federal-agency version of the Americans with Disabilities Act, will have a significant impact on the federal Webmaster community.

It requires federal agencies' electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. Section 508 was signed into law Aug. 7, 1998, when President Clinton signed the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.

The law places a high standard on agencies to provide accessibility. Federal agencies must provide accessibility to the greatest extent practical; in cases where accommodations are not made, it must be shown that doing so would create an undue burden on the agency.

Section 508 also has an enforcement mechanism: The law gives the public the right to bring complaints or suits against agencies that do not comply. In the event of multiple lawsuits, a motion can be filed to consolidate all the separate lawsuits into one. Thus, the potential for class action suits is extraordinary.

Section 508's definition of information technology includes electronic media — a new twist that broadens the range of applicable hardware and software. At a minimum, the law's phrase "electronic and information technology" should be interpreted expansively to include Web sites, facsimile machines, and other similar technologies.

When it comes to compliance, the hot-button question is not whether to provide accessibility at all, but to what extent? How much is enough? Because the products and supporting services are still evolving, the standard will change as available products to provide accessibility improve.

It would seem in most cases that it is an undue burden for agencies to have to create new products to improve accessibility, but this will have to be determined largely by the courts. The clear message that Section 508 brings is, at a minimum, federal agencies must search out available products and make a good-faith attempt to provide accessibility to the degree supported by the marketplace.

In addition, it appears that an undue burden must also reflect a balance between product availability, funds, time and other programmatic considerations encountered when improving accessibility. It would be in agencies' best interests to document in procurements how they analyzed their "undue burden" when providing accessibility. But, again, how much is enough?

The pool of people requiring special accommodations is bound to increase, particularly as the general work force ages. Ultimately, all of us will reach the point in our lives where we need assistance accessing electronic and information technology. This is one law where both compassion and self-interest compel our support, with the proper balance on undue burden and to the greatest extent practical.

To obtain more detailed information on accessibility in the federal government or for further information on Section 508, visit the following General Services Administration Center for IT accommodation Web sites:

www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/cita/index.htm

www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/cita/508.htm

— Tart is co-chair of the Federal Webmaster Forum and the Federal Web Business Council, and is senior program analyst at General Services Administration's Office of Information Technology. Kellett is founder of the Federal Web Business Council, co-chair of the Federal Webmaster Forum, and is director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.

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