Long road ahead

Congress handed agencies the daunting technical challenge of making their electronic equipment usable by the disabled. But inaction by the Clinton administration is making the challenge harder.

The law producing agency hand-wringing is Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It requires agencies to make their information systems — and their World Wide Web sites — accessible to the disabled. That means visually impaired users must be able to "read" data on monitors and Web sites, and physically disabled people must be able to manipulate data on systems.

Good idea, especially because 7 percent of the federal work force is disabled. And after all, government systems and Web sites should be accessible to all Americans.

But the administration still hasn't told agencies what they have to do. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board was four months late in developing standards that will define what "accessible" means. And the Office of Management and Budget says its review of the standards may not be completed until May. So agencies still don't know what technology they will have to buy to meet the standards.

That doesn't help agencies, which are facing an Aug. 7 deadline for complying with the accessibility law.

Another problem: Some technology that would make systems accessible is not fully developed. Agencies do have an escape clause in the law that would allow them to avoid compliance if they can show that providing accessible systems would be an undue burden. But most likely what determines undue burden will have to be decided by the courts, which could see numerous Workforce Investment Act lawsuits. (See "When is enough enough?" www.fcw.com/extra.)

The Aug. 7 deadline looks increasingly unrealistic. Accessibility products cannot be purchased and installed over the summer. And too many unknowns will remain even after OMB issues the standards. What is certain is that the accessibility issue will continue to haunt agencies well into next year.

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