What experts say about compliance

As the deadline for 508 compliance nears, federal employees and vendors alike are asking questions about how the law should be implemented. Here is what some experts on Section 508 have to say about potential problems:

Q: Are there any exceptions to Section 508? A: There are at least three. If compliance causes an "undue burden," agencies can opt out. The Justice Department defines undue burden as "a significant difficulty or expense," but exactly how that will be interpreted remains to be seen. Doug Wakefield, a technology expert who helped write the standards, offered this benchmark: "If the choice is between a more compliant phone system and firing people, that's an undue burden."

"Micropurchases" of electronic and information technology under $2,500 and made by agency employees using government purchase cards are exempt until Jan. 1, 2003. National security systems used in intelligence, cryptology, command and control, or as parts of weapons systems are also exempt. But systems used in military administration such as payroll, finance, logistics and personnel management applications are not.

Products located in spaces mainly used by service personnel, such as servers and telephone switching equipment, are also exempt. But agencies cannot claim 508 exemptions for server-based applications that are in general use by employees.

Q:What if products are developed that provide accessibility but do not meet the standards? A:The law permits "equivalent facilitation," which means agencies will be allowed to buy equipment that does not meet specific 508 standards if it is nevertheless accessible by people with disabilities. In Web accessibility, for example, Section 508 "talks very much about HTML," said the ITAA's Rex Lint, "but actually it's being used less and less, and other things are being used more and more. There soon might not be all text. Rather than make something accessible to a screen reader, you can embed audio in it, and it can be accessible," he said.

Justice Department lawyer Mary Lou Mobley said, "If you can come up with a better way to provide accessibility than is outlined in 508, go for it."

Q:If an agency signed a contract before June 21, but buys items under the contract after June 21, do those purchases have to comply with Section 508? A:Probably, but the answer is far from clear, say federal procurement experts. "It is possible that those contracts will have to be amended," because Section 508 appears to apply to any money spent after June 21, said Mike Walker, a procurement analyst for the National Institutes of Health. Linda Nelson, a General Services Administration procurement analyst, said electing not to modify such contracts could make agencies vulnerable to lawsuits. However, Walker notes, amending the contracts could mean agencies would have to pay additional fees to vendors, which could trigger the undue burden clause and may exempt the procurement from compliance.

Q:If there are no disabled people in my office, do we still have to comply with 508 standards? A:Absolutely, says Mobley. The law focuses on the technology, not on the workforce. Electronic and information technology bought after June 21 must meet Section 508 standards. An office needing 10 new computers cannot buy two that meet 508 standards and eight that do not. All must meet the standards, she said. Q:Is testing Web pages with a screen reader good enough? A:No, according to Wakefield. "The different screen readers out there vary a lot on how they react to coding." Just because one screen reader can read a Web page does not guarantee that others can and does not ensure that the page is fully 508-compliant. Even "Bobby," the online Web page screener, is not totally reliable, he said. It checks Web pages for compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative standards, not 508 standards. The best strategy for Web designers is to "program to the standard," Wakefield said. That means follow the instructions spelled out in Section 508. "It's not hard," he said.

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