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

of many.

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.

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