Reno: IT, disabled can help workforce

Information technology has dramatically increased the productivity of the

nation's workforce, but disabled people, who might benefit most from technology,

have largely been left behind, said Attorney General Janet Reno.

It is sadly ironic, Reno told a gathering of federal agency managers

Tuesday, that so many disabled people remain unemployed even as many high-technology

jobs in the United States go unfilled and a growing number of foreign high-tech

workers are being admitted in an effort to meet the demand for technology

employees.

"Many of these jobs may be ideal for people with disabilities if only

we could make the connection and provide the training," Reno said at an

Agriculture Department conference on disability employment. "These are people

who want to work, who want so to contribute, who want to make a difference

and be productive."

Of 30 million American adults with serious disabilities, 75 percent

are unemployed or underemployed, she said.

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

improvements in technology," she said. "Most technology is designed without

thinking of the disabled." But often, adding simple features or making small

changes during the design phase would make computers and software usable

by disabled persons at little or no cost to the manufacturer.

Two federal initiatives aim to turn the government into a model employer

for people with disabilities.

One is an executive order issued by President Clinton requiring government

agencies to hire 100,000 disabled workers over the next five years.

The other is Section 508, a law passed by Congress to compel agencies

to provide disabled employees with computers, software, telephones and other

information technology that enables them to work.

But the government's progress toward making agencies accessible to the

disabled is moving at a snail's pace. Section 508 was passed two years ago

but remains unenforceable because standards that will tell agencies what

they must do to comply with the law are incomplete. The latest projected

completion date is late December or January, according to Doug Wakefield,

an accessibility specialist for the U.S. Access Board.

The Access Board was to have finished the standards by last February

and enforcement was to have begun in August. Under the current schedule,

however, enforcement will not begin until June or July.

When they are finally in place, the Section 508 standards will be the

strongest accessibility mandates in the world, Wakefield said in an address

at an accessibility conference Monday. "If you don't provide access, it

will be seen as a violation of civil rights. That's serious business." The

law permits employees to take legal action if the accessibility standards

are not met.

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