Council: Accessibility a civil right

Access to information and information technology has become so important it should be considered a civil right, but for many Americans — especially those with disabilities — access remains a right denied, a council advising President Bush said last week.

In a report to the president June 21, the National Council on Disability urged Bush to direct federal agencies to improve access to information and technology in government and the private sector.

The council also wants the president and Congress to establish a blue-ribbon commission to examine the federal laws that govern access to information and recommend changes to increase access.

When releasing the report, "The Accessible Future," council members said they found a clear need for a comprehensive and cohesive national accessibility policy.

"Information is becoming more and more essential to our employment, education and community participation," said council member Bonnie O'Day. While most Americans rely increasingly on the Internet, wireless phones, automated teller machines, e-mail, fax machines and the like, those technologies too often remain inaccessible to people with disabilities. Instead of helping, they may "in many cases be reinforcing patterns of exclusion and isolation," she said. The council also called for consumers to guide federal agencies and industry on accessibility. Agencies should appoint "consumer advisory panels" to identify accessibility problems and solutions in government. In the private sector, the federal government should consider training, placing and paying people with disabilities to work with manufacturers to test and evaluate IT.

The council envisions a nationwide IT accessibility effort similar to the nationwide effort during the 1970s to eliminate physical barriers in buildings and public facilities, such as wider doors and ramps to accommodate wheelchairs.

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