Access Board standards out

Federal agencies now have less than six months to comply with new electronic "accessibility" standards, and though agency officials sound confident about meeting the deadline, there is rising anxiety among some in the information technology industry that time is too short.

"Most agencies are on track to meet the deadline" on June 21, said Renee LeBoeuf, spokeswoman for the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). By contrast, IT executives said in a December survey they "can't possibly be prepared to comply" with the new standards as soon as June.

Instead, industry officials said they may press Congress to delay imposing the deadline or seek loopholes in the standards, according to Input, a Virginia-based market research company.

The compliance clock started ticking Dec. 21, when the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board) published Section 508 standards requiring agencies to provide electronic and information technology that is fully usable by employees with disabilities. Agencies also must ensure that those with disabilities can use their Web sites.

The intent is to use electronic and information technology to even the playing field for people with disabilities.

In federal offices, for example, computers must be able to accommodate screen readers and Braille displays for blind employees, and software must respond to keyboard commands for those who have difficulty using a computer mouse. Ultimately, the accessibility standards will apply to office equipment ranging from telephones to photocopiers.

Failure to comply will leave agencies vulnerable to legal action.

For many agencies, the most immediate concern is to upgrade Web sites so they are fully accessible to both employees and the public by June 21. Most agencies have been working toward that goal since last summer. Hundreds of federal Web page designers have undergone accessibility training, and more than 80 agencies have named Section 508 compliance coordinators.

Generally, agencies have made substantial progress toward Web compliance, according to officials at the Access Board and NTIS.

The same sense of confidence isn't shared by some in the IT industry, however. Company executives told Input that the six-month deadline is far too short; companies typically have 18- to 24-month product cycles. Makers of photocopiers and fax machines, for example, worry that they don't have enough time to produce new versions that incorporate accessibility features, said Albert Nekimken, Input's vice president and director of research.

"Some vendors fear whole sections of their product lines could be virtually unsalable in the federal market," Nekimken said. Others worry that adding accessibility features will drive up prices, making accessible equipment uncompetitive outside the federal market, he said.

Software makers are also worried, said Mark Bohannon, general counsel and vice president for government affairs at the Software and Information Industry Association. "Six months is short," he said. Companies may instead turn to loopholes in the law.

One exception is showing that compliance imposes an undue burden. Another is that "micropurchases" of less than $2,500 may be exempt.Section 508 highlights

Long-awaited Section 508 accessibility standards issued by the Access Board Dec. 21 contained few surprises. Here are some highlights:

Interactive electronic forms must be made available to people with disabilities. But with current technology, interaction between forms and screen readers can be unpredictable, the Access Board said. Accessibility could cost the federal government more than $1 billion a year — about a 3 percent increase in the $38 billion the government now spends annually on information technology. At $510 million a year, accessible software will cost agencies more than accessible hardware, priced at $337 million. "Back office" equipment, such as servers and telecommunications switches typically used only by service personnel, is exempt. A delay in implementation of the standards sought by members of the information technology industry was denied. Companies are encouraged to try to meet accessibility requirements in innovative ways as technology evolves.

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