'Accessibility' deadline looms

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

will be.

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

widely available.

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

burden."

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.

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