Out front on access
Next spring, federal agencies will be required to comply with Section 508
of the Rehabilitation Act. That means agencies must make their computer
systems accessible to members of the public and federal employees with a
wide range of disabilities, from blindness to limited mobility. It is going
to be a big job.
And given the sweeping range of the mandate, many federal information
technology managers might anticipate that complying with the rules will
be a management nightmare. After all, making agency information and systems
accessible to nondisabled Americans is tough enough. Adding assistive technology
to those systems and fending off lawsuits from those who believe the systems
are less than properly accessible will only make IT managers' jobs tougher.
But they need not worry so much. Although adapting agency computers
and World Wide Web sites will be tricky in some cases and costly in most,
it won't be too hard. Indeed, the technology already exists for putting
in place nearly all of the fixes the law requires.
In part, that's because innovation in the computer industry is already
geared toward systems — such as voice recognition and screen reading — that
people with disabilities require. Such people are enthusiastic early-adopters
of technology that years from now the general public may take for granted
as everyday conveniences. Given the size of the federal government, the
demand for tools to speed Section 508 compliance will encourage computer
manufacturers to race to market with newer and better fixes.
Agency IT managers could choose to embrace the challenge of Section
508 compliance. After all, federal agencies will be the first to tackle
the challenges of how best to incorporate those new technologies. Agency
IT managers therefore have an opportunity to show the rest of the nation
how to engineer a solution that will lead directly to improving the lives
In doing so, the government — backed by its IT corps — can use its unique
position to become a paragon of best technology practices in the workplace.