Feds push to close accessibility loophole

The "micro-purchase exemption," one of the loopholes to compliance with new federal accessibility standards, is likely to be phased out.

Two federal acquisition councils have decreed a two-year "sunset" to the exemption. The exemption allows agencies to buy computers and office equipment that do not meet new government accessibility standards as long as they buy in small amounts.

Specifically, purchases of less than $2,500 that are made with government purchase cards do not have to comply with accessibility standards that take effect June 21.

But the Civilian Acquisition Agency Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council say the exemption should be abolished Jan. 1, 2003.

The logic behind the loophole is that purchase card buys are usually small purchases of commercial products, such as computers, software and other office essentials. Letting government employees make such buys using government purchase cards usually saves time and money. But the employees who make micro-purchases typically are not contracting officers and are not qualified to determine whether equipment complies with the new standards.

However, the acquisition councils contend that by 2003, "it is expected that almost all products will comply with the standards," so the micro-purchase exemption will be unnecessary.

The exemption has been singled out by IT equipment vendors as one way agencies can avoid meeting tough new "Section 508" accessibility standards that require agencies to buy electronic and IT equipment that is user-friendly to people with disabilities that range from blindness to deafness to dexterity difficulties.

The plug in the micro-purchase loophole was announced Jan. 22, when the two acquisition councils published a notice in the Federal Register that they are proposing to amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation by incorporating the Section 508 standards in it.

The councils are accepting comments until March 23, and they say they have few options when it comes to weaving the accessibility standards into the acquisition regulation.

The Section 508 standards are established in law, so "the government has little flexibility for alternatives in writing this regulation," the councils' notice says. "Individuals with disabilities can file civil rights lawsuits" if agencies fail to comply with them.

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