Agencies still on the learning curve
- By Margaret A.T. Reed
- Aug 11, 2003
Despite the efforts of many agencies to field Web sites and office technology that can be readily "accessed" by employees and citizens with disabilities, two years after the rules requiring them took effect, such systems are still rare.
Initially, the greatest barriers stemmed from a lack of agency awareness about their new responsibilities under the Section 508 law. Now, even though more agencies understand their obligations, because they do not know how to comply with the mandate, they are held back. This is leaving advocacy groups disappointed, according to those familiar with the program.
"The task proved to be so large and the knowledge required so specialized that things aren't working as ideally as we'd like," said Curtis Chong, president of computer science, National Federation for the Blind. "It's really great that we've got this law, but things just haven't really changed."
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to buy only information technology products that are compatible with devices designed to make the systems accessible to people with disabilities, so that such accommodations can be easily provided if the need arises.
Most federal agencies have been slow to adopt compliance practices on an aggressive basis, according to Tim Springer, co-founder and director of client services for SSB Technologies, a company specializing in accessibility solutions..
"While they're putting forth the effort, it's not actually getting done properly," he said.
As with many governmentwide initiatives, agencies are producing mixed results.
"There are some shining examples in government," said Joe Tozzi, director of the Assistive Technology Program at the Education Department. Those that are making significant progress include the Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program, as well as various programs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Postal Service, he said.
In these cases "their success was perpetuated by fine support all the way from the top," Tozzi said.
Indeed, increased awareness of Section 508 appears to have boosted recent progress at some larger agencies that have the resources and manpower to dedicate to the program. Observers note, however, that many smaller agencies lack the know-how to comply with Section 508, even when the willingness to do so exists.
"Federal executive agencies are certainly willing, but some are better able than others for a variety of reasons," said Martin Gould, senior research specialist for the National Council on Disability. "There are a lot of challenges, and they're trying to meet them."
"It's my perception that most of the larger agencies are really out there trying to do the right thing. I've seen a big change," said T.J. Cannady, program manager of the Information Resources Accessibility Program for the IRS.
Cannady said the increase in awareness is obvious, based on changes he has seen at recent 508 forums and discussions. "In the beginning, it was the same people standing up to talk about their success," he said. "Now it's different people from different agencies."
Part of the confusion around Section 508 that has led to compliance problems centers on the burden of responsibility, according to industry groups. The law places legal responsibility on the federal agency to ensure that the IT equipment it purchases can be made accessible to people with disabilities. Employees can take legal action against agencies that fail to purchase such products and services.
"The organization that bears the most burden is the agency," said Louis Hutchinson, chief executive officer of Crunchy Technologies, a company that sells accessible software to business and government clients. "It is the ultimate responsibility of the agency to ensure that anything they buy or use is accessible."
But some people believe that agencies are using their purchasing power to try to shift the responsibility onto the vendors, essentially asking them to assess whether their products are 508-compliant and to shoulder the blame if they are not.
"Agencies are holding the commercial sector to a higher level than they hold themselves," said Clark French, president of the IT consulting company CIA Corp. "Agencies are pushing hard on the vendors."
By contrast, many in the advocacy community think that the law should be changed to force vendors to produce accessible products.
"Vendors should have legal responsibility," Chong said. The idea of placing responsibility on the agencies is "a great theory, if it worked. The law ought to be changed so companies are required to make products accessible without being able to weasel out of it."
Advocates for those with disabilities also say the lack of compliance standards makes it difficult for federal employees to understand which products best meet their accessibility needs. This often leads to the unintended purchase of inaccessible products.
What is clear is that "if there is litigation, the agency is responsible," said Fred Difiore, the Section 508 coordinator at USPTO.
An individual who won a civil suit against an agency would receive a court-ordered correction of the accessibility problem but not punitive damages.
As of yet, no suits have been filed against government agencies for not complying with Section 508. In fact, Difiore claims that lawsuits would be unnecessary if agencies would be responsive to any issues that arise.
As an example, he cites a blind USPTO employee who wanted an accommodation to fill out a transit-subsidy form, which reimburses employees who commute using the Metrorail. The form must be filled out on the Internet, but in the past the form was not compatible with the employee's screen reader. According to Difiore, the USPTO 508 team took "three minutes to look at the form and solve the problem" by changing the coding of the form to work with the screen reader.
Not all agencies are as diligent as USPTO about fixing accessibility issues, causing many to question the noticeable absence of lawsuits by federal employees.
"There's a situation where there hasn't been anything [like a lawsuit] to wake [agencies] up and say 'Hey! We need to do something here!'" Tozzi said.
In fact, only individuals, not groups, can file such lawsuits. This rule deters many employees from making a claim, according to John Williams, an independent journalist who has written extensively on Section 508 issues. "People don't want to be identified," he said. "Lawsuits haven't happened now because of fear of losing jobs."
"If nobody complains, nothing will change of any substance," Chong said. "If you're working for an agency, are you going to file a lawsuit against your employer? I don't think so. It's easier to file a lawsuit against a company, but 508 puts the onus on the agency."
Routine Attention Needed
Many federal employees do not realize that Section 508 applies to their procurements even if their agency currently does not have employees with disabilities, according to those who provide training on Section 508. The resulting failure to purchase IT products compatible with assistive technologies will likely put agencies in a difficult position in the future. When faced with job applicants who have disabilities, the agency might discriminate against them, or they will have to spend money to go back and fix the problem. "If you don't have a blind person working for you, it won't even cross your mind until a blind person looks for a job in your outfit," Chong said.
Cannady said that the success of 508 will ultimately be determined by how well it is incorporated into regular government business processes.
Agencies need to start "working with enterprise architecture to get 508 built into the life cycle," he said. "Getting into the foundation gets 508 in at the ground floor, [so they are] planning for 508 rather than reacting."
Assessing each product's compliance with 508 requirements should be a standard part of the procurement process, according to the Justice Department report "Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility."
Despite being an unfunded mandate, Section 508 should not be viewed as an added financial burden to agencies but as "part of the cost of doing business," said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation at the General Services Administration.
More than 50 million people — or one out of every five Americans — have a disability. Two-thirds of those with disabilities are of working age and want to work, but only one-third of the total disabled population is employed. Only 70 percent of working-age blind people are employed. This underutilized workforce costs government and private contributors $232 billion annually in unemployment benefits and other social support costs, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities.
With so much of the population classified as disabled, "508 is just another business requirement, not something special. The intent of 508 is to deliver government to all of its citizens," Cannady said.
Effective training to understand compliance and accessibility issues continues to be the most needed support for Section 508. Without the knowledge of how to comply, even the most willing agencies can miss the mark.
Agencies can also benefit from input from advocacy groups about which IT products work best with assistive technology. Unfortunately, sometimes projects intended to support 508 end up helping no one, and instead waste time and energy.
For example, according to Chong, who is blind, "IRS spent lots of money making their tax forms accessible with the best of intentions, but I have to ask myself 'Why?' I can't use TurboTax. The project was great in theory, but it's very doubtful that any blind person would ever bother with tax forms in Braille or online."
"The frustration is still there, the inaccessibility is still there, and a lot of money is being spent on things that aren't helping," he said.
Training classes can provide federal employees responsible for procurements with the necessary knowledge to make the right decisions. Many agencies offer courses of their own.
For example, GSA, working with the Federal Executive Board, offers a half-day class called "Acquiring Technology: What Every Federal Employee Needs to Know About Section 508." The classes are offered in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Dayton, Calif. There are plans under way for Atlanta and Denver.
"So far, about 150 people have been trained through this course, " Weaver said. "They come into the class thinking it doesn't apply to them, [that] it's someone else's job, and leave understanding that's not true."
The IRS developed a similar training program designed to teach federal employees how to make purchases comply with 508. The basic course is available to all Treasury Department bureaus and has been completed by 2,100 U.S. Mint employees.
The goal of the IRS training program is to make the IT managers more self-sufficient. "We walk them through the procedures so they can do it themselves the next time," Cannady said. "To do it ourselves every time I would need a staff of 1,000."
Most federal employees are "still a long way from expert" in 508, Weaver said. "But the good news is they know they're not experts, and they're willing to learn."