If it ain't broke...

Two government procurement councils last month asked for feedback on requiring vendors to certify that their electronic hardware and software products are usable by people with disabilities. This change could potentially disrupt what so far has been a successful implementation of the Rehabilitation Act.

From most accounts, the act's Section 508 — which requires agencies to make electronic equipment, including hardware, software and Web sites, usable by people with disabilities — is working, and without the torrent of lawsuits predicted before it became law in June 2001. The law works, arguably, because of a delicate balance among agencies, vendors and users. The law permits users to sue the federal government if an agency does not comply. But in the past year, no lawsuits have been filed.

One reason for the lack of legal action is that a successful lawsuit would not result in a lot of money changing hands. An agency, if found guilty, simply would have to fix its equipment or Web site. Also, agencies are held accountable for complying with the law and thus have put pressure on vendors to provide solutions that do so.

But the Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council, as made evident in a June 27 notice in the Federal Register, want to consider requiring vendors to certify that the equipment and software they sell to the government is accessible. That would shift the accountability for complying with Section 508 to vendors. Agencies would then have the incentive not to comply with Section 508 because they could always blame the vendors for falsely certifying products.

Allowing agencies to include clauses for certification would hamper the progress that has been made. The two councils should reconsider the consequences of a certification requirement and drop the effort.

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