Agencies overlook disability rule

Few agency IT solicitations include mandatory Section 508 specifications

Solicitations will be scored

Agencies that intend to buy information technology products but include no mention of Section 508 accessibility requirements in their solicitations can expect a reminder from the General Services Administration.

Section 508 standards help disabled employees use IT to facilitate their work.

Agencies can expect:

  • GSA officials will assess all solicitations for electronic and IT products on a continuing basis and check all available documents to see if the solicitations address Section 508 standards.

  • When broad sections and specific provisions of the U.S. Access Board standards are included, the solicitation will be scored green.

  • A solicitation that only mentions Section 508 requirements will be scored yellow.

  • A solicitation that doesn’t mention Section 508 standards will be scored red. The agency that issued it can expect a letter from GSA reminding officials that their solicitation lacks proper references to the standards.

  • — Matthew Weigelt

    Agencies often forget about making information technology purchases that meet the needs of people with disabilities, as shown by the tiny number of solicitations that include references to accessibility standards.

    Governmentwide, only 3 percent of solicitations for electronic and IT products properly include Section 508 accessibility standards, according to a recent General Services Administration assessment of solicitation notices on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site.

    About 75 percent of IT solicitations failed to mention any of the standards that reduce barriers for disabled employees, said Terry Weaver, director of the Office of Technology Strategy’s Information Technology Accessibility and Workforce Division at GSA.

    “I’d hoped for better.”

    David Capozzi, director of technical and information services for the U.S. Access Board, which oversees Section 508 standards, said he “was surprised in a shocked kind of way” about the percentages. “Certainly, government needs to do a better job.”

    Even the 3 percent figure doesn’t necessarily indicate compliance, Capozzi said.

    The figure indicates a few words appeared in a proposal, but it doesn’t mean the agency actually bought a 508-compliant product.

    Given the poor showing, Weaver and GSA are taking a soft approach to ensuring that agencies comply with the law.

    Agencies can expect a letter from GSA when their requests for proposals lack any mention of compliance standards, she said.

    “We’re using carrots because people don’t like to be threatened,” said Weaver, who is composing a form letter GSA will issue.

    Meanwhile, Access Board members say their hands are tied because the board lacks enforcement authority.

    Howewer, accessibility advocates received some high-level support from administration officials in November when Office of Management and Budget officials sent a second reminder in the past two years to agencies about including Section 508 requirements in their purchases.

    Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for e-government and IT, and Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, wrote in a joint memo that agencies are failing to include Section 508 standards when they buy electronic or IT products, and these requirements must be met.

    Because of that Nov. 6 memo, Weaver said, agencies will pay more attention to the accessibility requirements.

    Even with OMB’s memo and GSA’s letter, however, the Access Board faces challenges in getting agencies to adhere to the standards because of technology changes.

    “Technology is a moving target,” said Mike Paciello, co-chairman of a committee that is reviewing Section 508 standards for IT products. The committee is expected to make recommendations to the Access Board by Jan. 9.

    Paciello said the committee is writing general standards that it hopes will be useful as technology continues to advance.

    Timothy Creagan, a designated federal officer of the board, said a lack of awareness training is another reason for low compliance with accessibility standards for IT.

    Employee turnover in agencies makes it difficult to keep workers informed about the standards, Creagan said. “You want to work as much as you can,” despite the challenges, he said. “You never stop.”  

    About the Author

    Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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