Disabled workers left behind
- By William Matthews
- Oct 29, 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, 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
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
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,"