Davis: Feds pin 508 rules on vendors

Since June, the law has required that federal agencies buy office technology usable by people with disabilities. But instead of complying with the law, agency procurement officials have devised a number of ploys to shift that responsibility to product vendors, a Virginia congressman charges.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) complained in a letter to the General Services Administration that some federal agencies are pressuring vendors to "certify" their products' compliance with Section 508. Others insist on "government-unique contract clauses" that vendors must sign to assure federal agencies that their products comply with Section 508, Davis wrote.

And a few agencies "have been contemplating requiring contractors to submit to mandatory third-party testing as a condition for bidding on government contracts," Davis said.

"All of the above violate the letter and spirit of the accessibility standards," said Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee. Section 508 makes it clear that federal agencies — not vendors or their products — are responsible for complying with the accessibility standards.

Davis spelled out his complaints in a Feb. 20 letter to Stephen Perry, GSA administrator. At press time, Perry had not responded to the complaint, Davis' staff said. GSA oversees many government procurement practices and Section 508 training.

Davis said GSA had warned agencies in the past that they were not authorized to require that vendors certify or warrant that their products comply with Section 508. He asked Perry to "publish and disseminate guidance reiterating the prohibition" on certifications, warranties and third-party testing.

Davis' concerns mirror those of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade organization that represents technology manufacturers and sellers. Companies in the organization worry about liability problems they could face if forced to offer warranties and Section 508 compliance certifications, said Michael Mason, an attorney with Washington, D.C.-based Hogan and Hartson LLP and a federal contracting specialist. They also worry about the potential cost and damaging effect of third-party testing.

If required, third-party testing could stifle an innovative provision of Section 508 that permits "equivalent facilitation." Under the provision, products can be found to support Section 508 if they make technology accessible — even if they do so without specifically meeting Section 508 standards.

Agency efforts to transfer Section 508 responsibility to vendors "are a very big deal," Mason said.

Failure to comply with Section 508 is potentially a big deal for agencies as well. The law permits federal employees and members of the public to sue agencies that fail to comply with it.

But agencies aren't alone in trying to turn Section 508 to their advantage, said Doug Wakefield, an accessibility expert for the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that developed the standards. Vendors also have tried to use the law as leverage. For example, vendors protested when the Social Security Administration required a specific type of video card for computers it was buying. "People complained that's not a 508 requirement," Wakefield said.

But the video cards worked best with SSA's assistive technology, and the agency was right — and within its rights — to require them, Wakefield said.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

Featured

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1986, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group