'Accessibility' deadline looms
- By William Matthews
- Mar 19, 2000
In about four months, federal agencies must comply with a law that requires
electronic equipment and World Wide Web sites to be usable by the blind,
deaf and people with other disabilities. And unlike past laws, this one
has teeth. Failure to comply will make agencies vulnerable to lawsuits.
As the effective date, Aug. 7, approaches, agency information technology
officials grow increasingly apprehensive. They have been told that they
must meet new accessibility standards but haven't been told what the standards
Promised in November, then December, then February, the accessibility
standards remain unknown. They were written by a small government agency
called the Access Board and sent to the Office of Management and Budget
for review Feb. 7. An OMB spokesman would only say the process could go
on for 90 days.
An official at the Access Board is more optimistic. He said the standards
might be made public before April.
Still, that won't leave agencies much time, say agency officials and
IT specialists. It takes eight to 18 months to get new electronic products
to the marketplace, according to an IT association lawyer. "There are definitely
products out there that are not going to be in compliance" come the Aug.
7 deadline, he said.
Technology manufacturers and sellers worry that there is too little
time to develop or acquire products that will comply with the new standards
and fear being shut out of the federal market.
Some agency technology experts fear that the standards will require
agencies to provide products to their disabled workers and access to their
Web page visitors that is beyond the reach of current technology or is not
For example, the standards are almost certain to require that federal
agencies provide computer screen readers for their blind employees. But,
one official said, many screen readers have difficulty converting information
in charts, graphs and other formats into Braille.
Agencies also expect the requirements to include accommodating people
with limited cognitive or memory abilities. So far, said one agency representative,
they don't know how to meet this requirement.
Much of the anxiety about the forthcoming standards is based on an ambitious
set of standards recommended last year by the Electronic and Information
Technology Access Advisory Committee. Complying with those standards in
some cases would require technology that isn't available yet, said a technology
official at a large civilian agency. Like others, he spoke on the condition
that he and his agency would not be identified.
"The expectation should be that agencies should implement products that
are on the market rather than try to develop" hardware and software to solve
access problems, he said.
But the advisory committee took its lead from federal law. Section 508
of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act states that federal agencies must ensure
that their electronic resources and IT give employees with disabilities
access to information and data that is comparable to access by the nondisabled.
Although ambitious, the law and the proposed standards contain a couple
of escape clauses: They exempt national security systems, and they exempt
other agencies if they can demonstrate that compliance constitutes "an undue
Agency officials said they are bewildered by how the accessibility standards
will apply to their Web pages. It is unclear, for example, how Web pages
can be made fully accessible to users with cognitive and learning disabilities,
as suggested in the advisory committee standards, or how the "comparable
access" standard would be applied to public Web pages that are available
to people with an array of individual disabilities.
What is clear is that the time for coming into compliance is increasingly
short, said the technology association lawyer. "The IT community is finally
paying attention, but it can't do anything" until the regulations are made
public, he said.