Access regs likely to be vague

In a matter of days — or weeks at most — federal agencies will receive rules instructing them to buy office equipment and information technology that can be used by people with a wide range of disabilities.

The question then becomes: How will government procurement officials know that the hardware and software they're buying meet the new requirements?

There may not be a clear answer. Accessibility standards will be intentionally vague when it comes to spelling out how manufacturers must make their products universally usable.

"They won't tell you how to do it," said Mary Lou Mobley, a lawyer and accessibility specialist for the Justice Department.

Instead, the standards will focus on what equipment and software must be able to do. That way, "if you can find a better way to build an accessible mouse trap, go for it," Mobley told a gathering of equipment and software manufacturers Tuesday.

But the absence of detail in product specifications may create problems for government buyers. It may not be easy for them to know whether the equipment and software they are buying actually works the way vendors say it will. Government procurement officials are studying a number of ways to solve the problem.

* Voluntary testing procedures: The General Services Administration's approach is to hire industry experts to develop "voluntary testing procedures" for compliance with accessibility standards, said Martin Kwapinski, an accessibility specialist for the agency. When the testing procedures are ready, the GSA plans to double-check them by applying them to equipment with known accessibility problems.

* Self-certification: Under this option, manufacturers simply certify that their products comply with accessibility requirements. Though seemingly simple, the practice has its downside: It "is a lightning rod for allegations of fraud," said Michael Mason, a lawyer and accessibility specialist for the Information Technology Association of America, an IT industry trade group.

* Third-party certification: The main problem with this option is that no qualified third party exists to certify that products are accessible, Mason said. If one emerges, he said he envisions "long lines of vendors" waiting to receive the stamp of approval before they can move their products to market. "It could slow down the production cycle," he said.

* Warranties: Another approach is for companies to issue warranties ensuring that their products meet accessibility standards. Such warranties were used to ensure that IT products were Year 2000-compliant and would not succumb to the date-change glitch.

Amid the efforts to create compliance standards, federal officials may have found a loophole. Equipment and software "micro purchases" may be exempt from accessibility requirements, according to Lauren Uher of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Purchases of less than $2,500 made with agency purchase cards are considered "micro purchases" and are exempt from a number of regulations that govern larger purchases, she said. "A lot of fax machines, keyboards, monitors" and other equipment can be bought without exceeding the $2,500 threshold, she said.

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