Section 508 loopholes abound

On June 21, new standards take effect requiring federal agencies to make their Web pages and electronic technology accessible to people with disabilities. But don't expect accessibility to be achieved instantaneously, government experts caution.

Despite language that permits lawsuits against agencies that fail to meet accessibility standards, there are plenty of loopholes that agencies can duck through, Justice Department lawyers said May 9.

During a "town hall" meeting in a Capitol Hill hearing room, the lawyers and representatives from a half-dozen federal agencies told representatives from technology companies and disability interest groups that achieving accessibility is likely to be gradual.

For example, the law requires agencies to buy only accessible hardware and software after June 21, but it does not require them to abandon equipment they already own, said Justice Department lawyer Mary Lou Mobley.

In addition, agencies can ignore the law:

* If following it imposes an "undue burden."

* If it forces a "fundamental alteration" in a product or service.

* If an acquisition of less than $2,500 is made as a "micro purchase" using a government credit card.

There are national security exemptions as well.

The accessibility law also applies to agency Web pages, but only those created by contractors after June 21. Confusion about how the law applies to Web pages has prompted some agency officials to encourage Web managers to delete noncompliant Web content.

"We do not encourage agencies to get rid of Web pages that do not meet" Section 508 accessibility standards, Mobley said. Instead, Justice encourages agencies to add names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of agency people so that Web page users who have difficulty with noncompliant Web content know who to contact to get the material in other formats.

Charles Crawford, of the American Council of the Blind, asked how long a government Web page can continue to exist before it is required to become accessible. It's like continuing to sell 1992 cars, he said.

Not so, says the Justice Department. It's more like following the rules that govern accessibility barriers in government buildings. "Some barriers are going to continue to exist," said John Wodatch, chief of the department's disability rights section. "The goal is to have all pages accessible," but the undue burden clause and other loopholes mean some Web pages can legally remain inaccessible for a long time, he said.

Justice is compiling results of a survey of agencies to see how close they are to Section 508 compliance. Results are not expected to be available until August.

There is another factor causing confusion about how soon agencies must meet accessibility requirements. Although Section 508 takes effect June 21, the authority to enforce it is contained in another law — the Federal Acquisition Regulation. That won't be updated to include Section 508 requirements until June 25.

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