Planning takes pain out of compliance

Complying with new standards to buy information technology resources and electronic equipment to accommodate disabled people needn't cost a lot — provided agencies plan for such purchases in advance, three Education Department officials advised Tuesday.

Craig Luigart, Education's chief information officer; Glenn Perry, the department's contracts and purchasing operations director; and Joe Tozzi, its assistive technology program leader, shed some light on buying accessible IT in their comments to procurement officials and industry representatives at E-Gov's Electronic Procurement conference in Northern Virginia.

In December, The Access Board published standards for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was reauthorized in 1998 to require agencies to provide technology that is fully usable by employees and citizens with disabilities. Agencies have until June 21 to comply before being subject to legal action.

Luigart said planning procurements with accessibility in mind can save headaches down the road, and he estimated that accessibility might increase costs only about 1 percent. "If you plan like any good program manager and procurement official, the impact on your deliverable is going to be quite minimal," he said.

Luigart likened accessibility costs to having a house built. If you decide you want 36-inch door frames after the construction workers have built 32-inch frames, "that's costly," he said. If you requested the larger frames at the outset, no extra costs would be incurred.

"We've got to get it out of our heads that [compliance with Section 508] is painful or costly, because it's not," Luigart said.

Also, planning for accessibility "really doesn't add any time at all" to the procurement process, except if it's brought up at the last moment, Perry said.

Education launched an IT review board that must approve all department IT purchases, and one of the things it examines is whether accessibility has been taken into account, Perry said.

Education made accessibility a priority even before Section 508 was amended in 1998. It included standard accessibility clauses in all contracts on its own and will now incorporate Section 508 standards as well, Perry said.

When the department wanted to make student financial aid applications available over the World Wide Web, neither Microsoft Corp. nor Netscape Communications Corp.'s Internet browsers could work with other products that make Web browsing accessible to disabled people, Perry said. Education refused to purchase either company's product until they were altered, he said.

In another instance, the department purchased a financial management system that wasn't accessible at first, but it had the vendor agree to upgrade it in the future, Perry said.

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