Software central to accessibility standards, cost

Software is expected to consume most of the $1 billion it may take each year for federal agencies to comply with the new accessibility standards, the federal Access Board reports.

Buying new software to meet the accessibility standards has been estimated at as much as $510 million a year. Buying hardware that meets the standards is expected to cost $337 million.

Because software forms the brains of computers and other office equipment, it is often the key to whether equipment is usable by people with disabilities. Here are just a few of the dozens of accessibility standards that apply to software:

    * Software must provide commands that can be executed by a keyboard. For example, print or save commands must be executable with keystrokes.

    * Programs cannot disrupt the accessibility features of other products.

    * Programs must provide information regarding add-on assistive technologies.

    * Colors cannot be the only means of conveying information.

    * If animation is used, the same information must be provided in a non-animated format.

The Access Board — officially the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board — said it tried to develop standards that tell software and hardware makers what their products must do while leaving it to the manufacturer to decide how best to meet the requirement.

However, the standards include many basic requirements, including:

    * Equipment that produces sound as part of its function must be equipped with adjustable volume controls.

    * Controls on office equipment such as copying machines must have operating controls that can be distinguished by feel.

    * Controls must be usable by persons with limited dexterity.

    * Products must have standard ports and connectors.

    * Products must have at least one mode of operation that does not require the user to have sight.

In a concession to industry lobbyists, the Access Board said "back-office" equipment such as telecommunication switches, servers and other system components normally operated only by service personnel need not comply with the regulations.

The standards also allow the IT industry to develop "equivalent facilitation" to meet requirements. This means that companies are encouraged to find different or better ways to meet the standards.

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