Access takes center stage

Section 508, an amendment to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, requires

federal agencies' electronic and information technology be accessible to

people with disabilities.

In the past, noncompliance was not enforceable, but an Aug. 7 deadline

opens the door to private lawsuits and administrative actions against agencies.

With that date fast approaching, Section 508 was a hot topic at last week's

FOSE conference held in Washington, D.C.

The Justice Department, Microsoft Corp. (same stage, different time

slot), and a host of others weighed in. There are major concerns about cost

and feasibility of compliance, but the main theme among those closest to

the action focused on education and training.

"The employment rate of people with disabilities has not kept pace with

the technology [boom]," said Attorney General Janet Reno, during her lunchtime

keynote address on the first day of FOSE. "Seventy-five percent of the

30 million disabled people in the U.S. are underemployed or unemployed.

[That's] ironic, as so many high-tech jobs go unfilled."

Reno presented the Justice Department's first scheduled report on Section

508 at FOSE. "Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current

State of Federal Accessibility" includes recommendations for agencies in

the areas of communication, procurement and technical assistance.

Earlier that day, Steve Ballmer, president and chief executive officer

at Microsoft, announced $500,000 in grants for two programs that facilitate

the use of assistive technology in the government.

One of the grants is a cooperative project from Microsoft, Highway

1 (a nonprofit organization created to educate the government about technology)

and Accessible Systems Inc. that will bring Section 508 and accessibility

training to federal agencies. Microsoft is also setting up an assistive

technology laboratory where agencies can test software for accessibility.

The standards for Section 508, which were proposed by the Architectural

and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) on March 31,

are open for comment until May 30 and affect a variety of electronic equipment

and World Wide Web sites operated by federal agencies, all of which must

be made accessible unless the agencies can show an "undue burden." When

finalized, the standards will become part of the federal government's procurement

regulations.

More than 200,000 federal employees and about 30 million Americans are

affected by visual, hearing, physical, speech, learning or cognitive disabilities,

according to the government.

"There are about 10 percent of our department's employees who are disabled,

5 percent classified as permanently disabled and another 5 percent with

[temporary] injuries, and the ability to keep them productive is key," said

Craig Luigart, chief information officer at the Education Department.

Luigart, who has primary lateral sclerosis that requires him to use

a motorized wheelchair for much of the day, noted his department's proactive

approach to the accessibility issue through its Assistive Technology Program.

A lot of attention has been focused on the cost of compliance. Making

office equipment accessible alone could cost agencies $85 million to $691

million in the first year, and that doesn't include work that needs to be

done on their Web sites, said Doug Wakefield, an IT accessibility specialist

at the Access Board.

Wakefield, who is blind and uses voice recognition tools on his computer,

said cost should not be a main concern for the government because the largest

total will be incurred in the first year. Through training and familiarity,

the long-term price will even out "because agencies will not have to reinvent

the wheel."

Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development

Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoed Wakefield's thoughts

during one of many presentations of accessible technology at FOSE.

"The first time you try building something, there is always a cost,

but as you learn, the cost drops off precipitously," he said.

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