Section 508 eased for charge cards

The federal government extended a rule this week that allows government charge cardholders to purchase low-cost technology products without being required to prove that the products comply with Section 508 accessibility guidelines.

An interim rule, published in the Federal Register Dec. 31,2002, extends until Oct. 1, 2004, the Section 508 exemption for purchases under $2,500. According to the rule, the lack of information about Section 508 compliance on commercial product labels makes it impractical to enforce the guidelines when it comes to charge card purchases.

Section 508, which kicked in as part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation in 2001, requires technology products to be accessible to people with disabilities, based on guidelines provided by the U.S. Access Board. The law also covers Web sites.

When the rule was enacted, lawmakers exempted so-called micropurchases until Jan. 1, 2003, recognizing that charge cardholders often would not have information about whether products they find online or in electronics stores meet accessibility guidelines.

Although some technology vendors now provide that information, many still don't, according to the interim rule.

"By Oct. 1, 2004, we are hopeful that vendors will provide statements related to product conformance to the Section 508 standards as part of their marketing information and their outer packaging label," according to the rule, developed by the Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council.

"As this occurs, federal government cardholders can make informed [product] purchases that conform to the Access Board's standards, and the micropurchase exception will no longer be needed," the rule states.

Without such an exemption, charge card purchases would generate a bureaucratic mess disproportionate to the value of the purchases. Each product would have to go through a special evaluation for Section 508 compliance, and each purchase would have to be approved by a contracting officer. "This would significantly increase the workload in procurement offices and finance offices, causing a reduction in efficiency and delivery," according to the rule.

The procurement councils warn, however, that the continued exemption should not be interpreted as a lack of commitment to accessibility and note that the rule affects "only a very small percentage" of technology acquisitions.

Officials at the Access Board could not be reached for comment.

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