IT execs bemoan June "Section 508" deadline

Faced with a June deadline for meeting new accessibility standards, information

technology executives now say six months isn't nearly enough time to redesign

office equipment and rewrite software to accommodate government workers

with disabilities.

The standards for accessibility will be published Dec. 21, which will

give manufacturers until June 21 to produce electronic and information technology

that can be used by workers with a variety of physical and mental disabilities.

Companies that fail to meet the deadline won't be able to sell to the federal

government.

IT executives surveyed Dec. 7 and 8 said they "can't possibly be prepared

to comply" with the new standards by June. Instead, they are likely to press

Congress for more time and look for loopholes in the requirement, according

to Input, the Virginia-based market research company that conducted the

survey.

Companies have known since August 1998 that accessibility requirements

were coming. That's when Congress passed Section 508 of the Rehabilitation

Act. What they haven't known — and won't know until the standards are published — is precisely what they must do to make their products accessible.

The law applies to electronic office equipment ranging from desktop

computers to printers, fax machines, photocopiers and telephones. It also

applies to agency Internet sites. In general, Section 508 says that agencies

must ensure that employees with disabilities have access to and use of data

and information comparable to that afforded non-disabled employees.

Not every government-owned computer must have a screen reader or a Braille

display or a foot-operated mouse, for example, but agency workstations must

be able to accommodate them where they are needed.

The law also requires agencies to ensure that their Internet sites provide

disabled members of the public with access comparable to the access provided

non-disabled users. Agency employees and members of the public can take

legal action against agencies that fail to comply.

IT executives told Input that the six-month deadline set out under Section

508 is far too soon to be met by companies that typically have 18- to 24-month

product cycles.

Software makers have voiced similar concerns, said Mark Bohannon, general

counsel and vice president for government affairs at the Software and Information

Industry Association. "Six months is short," he said. "It remains to be

seen whether the deadline can be met."

For some companies, millions of dollars may be at stake, said Albert

Nekimken, vice president and director of research at Input." Some vendors

fear whole sections of their product lines could be virtually unsaleable

in the federal market."

"Publicly, the IT industry is dedicated to compliance," he said. But

more privately, the industry is likely to "redouble its efforts to use industry

organizations to lobby for more time."

Companies are also likely to exploit loopholes in the 508 law to avoid

compliance, Nekimken said. At least two loopholes are evident so far. One

is that the law exempts agencies from compliance when they can show that

compliance imposes an undue burden. The other is that "micropurchases" of

less than $2,500 may be exempt.

Links

Access regs likely to be vague/fcw/articles/2000/1113/web-access-11-15-00.asp

Disabled workers left behindAgencies' IT accessibility efforts move

slowly/fcw/articles/2000/1030/mgt-access-10-30-00.asp

Access.gov Adapting systems for the disabled isn't as tough as you think/fcw/articles/2000/0807/cov-access-08-07-00.asp

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