Measuring success

What a difference a year makes. When Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act kicked in last June, some observers predicted a slew of lawsuits as federal agencies struggled to make their systems and Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

The enormity of the task was further complicated by the fact that many people in government and industry thought the particulars of Section 508 regulations were open to interpretation. And technology industry leaders began complaining that agencies were unfairly shifting responsibility for compliance onto contractors.

A year later, however, the landscape is quite different. True, most federal agencies missed the 508 deadline by a wide margin if the measure is 100 percent compliance. In addition, vendors who pushed hard to produce accessible products are disappointed by the lack of urgency — and spending — among agencies.

Yet by another measure, the law is a success. Although not the buzzword it was a year ago, Section 508 is on the agenda of chief information officers and program managers across government. They recognize the importance of making their systems accessible and are working quietly but methodically to make the necessary changes.

The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has tapped its Alternative Media Center to work with Adobe Systems Inc. to develop an accessible version of the company's popular PDF, which the IRS uses to publish electronic versions of tax documents. By next year's tax season, officials hope to have 50 of the most popular forms available in the new, more accessible format.

Other agencies, squeezed for time and money, have taken a similar approach, focusing on their top priorities and working their way down the list. It's a sensible tactic that reflects the spirit if not the letter of the law, and it has accomplished enough to head off any lawsuits.

Perhaps the most notable measure of success for Section 508 is its impact outside the federal government. Numerous state governments have adopted the federal regulations as a model for their own accessibility guidelines.

Federal agencies probably have not yet covered as much ground as some people would like, but at least agencies are making progress — without the torrent of lawsuits many predicted.

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