Reno: IT, disabled can help workforce
- By William Matthews
- Oct 18, 2000
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
"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.