DHS creates 508 program

AT508.com Web cast interview with Steve Cooper and Daniel Sutherland

Homeland Security Department officials announced the creation of a new program to ensure that electronic and information technology is accessible to all employees with disabilities.

"What we're really trying to do is build upon what we believe is good business strategy," said Steve Cooper, the department's chief information officer, in a Webcast interview yesterday. "Making electronic and information technology more readily accessible for all people is simply a good practice." The interview was available on an Internet TV channel called AT508.com, which features news about the latest in assistive technology products, services and issues.

He said complying with Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act "does not stereotype the user in the sense that we don't automatically assume that every worker in our environment will use a traditional PC." The act requires federal agencies to ensure that their electronic and information technologies are accessible to employees and consumers with disabilities

"It gives us the flexibility to design, put together, whatever parameters, use different assets that we have with the department to ensure that, in fact, we can not only be compliant, but provide an environment for the highest productivity of everyone of our employees," he said.

The new program office will be part of the department's senior leadership team and will report to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is working with Cooper's office. The department is currently advertising two positions, including the program manager, at the USAJobs Web site until Oct. 27. The staff would be supplemented with outside contractors.

Cooper also said the office has high-level executive support, and there would be top quality training for all DHS employees on Section 508. He said they would also test and evaluate new technology to verify compliance with Section 508 regulations before it's purchased. He added acquiring any state-of-the-art technology wouldn't take a year but would be purchased rather quickly.

Not only would a model program attract better employees and improve productivity, but state-of-the-art technology for people with disabilities could result in "more flexibility, more portability and honestly, provides us with better designs and, for example, better Web sites."

In the same interview with AT508.com, Daniel Sutherland, who leads DHS' Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said he and Cooper initially commissioned a joint project to come up with what a model 508 program would look like and what would be needed to create it. They surveyed all the Section 508 coordinators within the department's 22 agencies and talked to other federal agencies with model programs.

Sutherland said Secretary Tom Ridge "has been very focused on disability policy and disability agenda. So, he has put in place an aggressive strategy to hire people with disabilities" among other efforts.

Cooper said the department's current accessibility isn't up to snuff. "We're not hiding that," he said. "We think that we are absolutely stepping out. We're taking this kind of proactively to ensure that we create a model program within the federal environment."

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