Access Board spells out standards

Nearly a year behind schedule, the federal Access Board has published standards designed to force agencies to become leaders in adopting electronic and information technology that can be used by people with a wide range of disabilities.

The Access Board — officially, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board — published the new standards Dec. 21 in the Federal Register.

The requirements cover matters ranging from buying telephones with jacks for plug-in devices used by deaf people, to acquiring computer software that accommodates screen readers for blind people, to producing Web pages that can be used by members of the public with disabilities ranging from dexterity problems to photosensitive epilepsy.

And for the first time, government employees and members of the public will be able to take legal action against agencies that fail to comply.

The new standards could add more than $1 billion a year — about 3 percent — to the $38 billion the federal government now spends annually on IT, the Access Board estimates.

But the benefit is expected to include greater employment among disabled people, a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in productivity among federal workers with disabilities and a "spillover of technology" that will boost employment and productivity outside the federal government.

"It's been a long time coming," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind. "I regard it as a positive step in the right direction and I hope that the legal process doesn't cost us further delays."

The standards apply to an array of electronic and IT equipment — including information kiosks, office computers, photocopiers and fax machines. After June 21, agency Web sites and the equipment agencies buy must meet the accessibility standards.

Required by legislation passed by Congress in 1998, the accessibility standards see IT as a great equalizer for disabled people. Thus, the standards intend to ensure that technology enables federal employees with disabilities to have access to and use of information comparable to that of employees without disabilities.

For government Internet sites, the standards require comparable access for disabled members of the public.

Exceptions may be made when agencies can demonstrate that compliance poses an undue burden, which the standards define as "significant difficulty or expense."

The accessibility standards were to have been issued Feb. 7 and to have taken effect Aug. 7. But several impediments, including concerns raised by the IT industry about the cost and the broad reach of the regulations, delayed publication until Dec. 21. The regulations now will take effect June 21, 2001.

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