Section 508 revisions considered

A year after Section 508 took effect, two councils that oversee government procurement regulations are asking whether the law needs to be changed.

In particular, the councils want to know whether the law would benefit from a clause that spells out the legal obligations — and limits to legal obligations — of vendors who sell electronic and information technology to government agencies.

The Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council are seeking public comments during the next two months on what changes may be necessary "to promote more consistent and effective implementation of Section 508."

The problem is that Section 508 is "being interpreted differently by different people depending on particular circumstances," said Larry Allen, vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

The law requires federal agencies to buy electronic and information technology that is "accessible," which means technology that enables people with disabilities to use data and information in a way that is comparable to use by those without disabilities.

Essentially, agencies must buy technology that can be used by people with such disabilities as vision and hearing impairments, dexterity problems and mobility limitations.

Section 508 includes detailed technical standards that hardware and software must meet to be considered accessible, but it also permits agencies to buy products that meet accessibility requirements in ways not detailed in the technical standards.

"There are different standards for different technologies and even different standards for the same technologies when they are used in different ways," Allen said. And in some cases, multiple standards may apply, as when a copying machine can also send faxes and serve as a printer, he said.

The variety of circumstances, rules and interpretations is frustrating for many who sell products to federal agencies, Allen said. But vendors do not agree on the solution.

"Some vendors think there should be a series of relatively hard and fast rules that direct contractors on what their responsibilities are in a clear, concise and reasonably unambiguous way," he said.

But others argue that hard and fast rules do not apply because each situation is different and technology keeps changing, Allen said.

A June 26 notice calls for vendors and others to comment on whether Section 508 needs fine-tuning. The notice was written by Al Matera, director of the Acquisition Policy Division of the General Services Administration.

Matera notes that while the legal responsibility for complying with Section 508 falls only on federal agencies, companies interested in selling IT products to the government must ensure their products are accessible.

For agencies, failure to comply with Section 508 means risking lawsuits. That liability has prompted some agencies to draft contract clauses that industry officials say are an attempt to shift compliance liability onto produce vendors.

Matera wrote that a single, wide-reaching electronic and information technology clause added to the Federal Acquisition Regulation might prevent "the proliferation of agency-specific clauses" that have irked industry officials. But he said that some agency and industry officials contend that the trouble over technology standards is better addressed "through the statement of work or other specifications instead of a clause."

Comments should be sent by e-mail to farnotice.2001-033@gsa.gov, or by mail to the General Services Administration, FAR Secretariat (MVP), Attn: Laurie Duarte, 1800 F Street, NW, Room 4035, Washington, DC 20405. Correspondents should cite FAR Case 2001-033, Section 508 Contract Clause.

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