Disabled workers left behind

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, according to Attorney General Janet Reno.

The federal government will attempt to change that, she said.

Of the 30 million American adults with serious disabilities, 75 percent

are unemployed or underemployed, Reno told a gathering of federal agency

managers earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Yet many of them could be

productive em-ployees if they are provided with computers, software and

other technology that would enable them to work, she said.

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

improvements in technology," Reno said at an Agriculture Department conference

on disability employment.

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 workers with disabilities over the next five years.

The other is Section 508, an addendum to the Rehabilitation Act intended

to compel agencies to provide disabled employees with computers, software,

telephones and other information technologies that will enable them to work

despite their disabilities.

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 federal Architectural and Transportation

Barriers Compliance Board — or 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 finally in place, the Section 508 standards will be the strongest

accessibility mandates in the world, Wakefield said in an address at a separate

accessibility conference this month. "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.

But even after the 508 standards are completed, there will be a six-month

delay before they are enforceable. Until then, accessibility is left up

to unenforceable "guidelines."

A survey of federal agencies shows that the guidelines have not been

effective, Reno said. Most agencies still do not have the computers and

other technology needed to accommodate people with disabilities.

The picture is no better in the private sector. Reno said it was sadly

ironic 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.

By requiring federal agencies to buy technology designed to accommodate

the disabled, the government hopes to use its leverage as the largest buyer

of IT to influence technology designs in the marketplace and the workplace.

"The solutions are usually simple, but they require thinking upfront,"

Reno said.

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