Section 508 legal 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."

* It forces a "fundamental alteration" in a product or service.

* An acquisition of less than $2,500 is made as a "micropurchase" 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 their 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 staff so that Web page users who have difficulty with noncompliant Web content know whom to contact to get the material in other formats.

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

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