Section 508 remains a high hurdle

GSA pursues a carrot-and-stick strategy for improving compliance with the law

508 wizard gets a new wardrobe

Officials at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the General Services Administration said they encourage agencies to use tools, such as the government’s Buy Accessible Wizard, to comply with Section 508.

An updated version of the wizard is available at a GSA Web site where contracting officers can search for companies that offer products and services that comply with Section 508. Vendors submit information that tell how their products and services meet the accessibility requirements. The site offers templates for solicitation documents.

The site also allows registered users to save data and share documents, and it lets them search by product categories.

“The functionality has grown so much with Version 3,” said Helen Chamberlain, program director in GSA’s IT Accessibility and Workforce division. “Version 2.3 was a dinosaur.”

— Jason Miller

The acquisition community continues to struggle with its efforts to buy information technology products and services that meet accessibility requirements, although it has been nine years since the enactment of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments created those requirements.

Many agency policies and processes have not changed since the amendments were enacted, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation must catch up, accessibility experts say.

“508 is not something someone else has done to us, but it is something the federal government is doing and asking for industry help,” said Terry Weaver, director of the General Services Administration’s IT Accessibility and Workforce division.

GSA is taking a carrot-and-stick approach to getting the acquisition community to improve its compliance. First, GSA will randomly inspect bid solicitations published on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site to see if they include accessibility specifications when required by law. Weaver’s office will assign red or green scores to agency contracting officers and tell 508 coordinators who is not complying with the law.

“We are trying to get to the action level,” Weaver said last month at an IT Quarterly Forum sponsored by the CIO Council and GSA.

“We will not share agency scores with others, but we will tell them how they are doing.”

GSA will also dangle a carrot. Weaver’s office updated an automated tool, the Buy Accessible Wizard, and improved GSA’s products and services directory to help agencies more easily find companies that offer 508-compliant products and services.

Starting in March, GSA’s accessibility division will offer training to agency acquisition officers on how to use the wizard and the directory.

A recent GSA study found that new strategies are needed to increase agency compliance with Section 508. The agency evaluated bid solicitations late last year and found that 80 percent did not mention accessibility requirements. Only 13 percent were minimally compliant with the law, and 7 percent were fully compliant.

Those findings prompted the Office of Management and Budget to send a memo to agency leaders in November reminding them of their legal obligations under Section 508.

“We made it clear that someone is watching this process,” said Lesley Field, a procurement policy analyst at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. “The memo offered agencies some solutions. We must do better.”

Weaver said GSA will continue to review the language of solicitations for proposals.

Using a software tool known as a randomizer, experts will evaluate solicitations from seven to nine civilian agencies and a similar number of Defense Department solicitations during each review. Agencies will receive letters telling them how well they are doing based on the sampling.

In addition, a new version of the Buy Accessible Wizard will help agencies achieve the objectives of Section 508, said Bill Hetzner, a senior policy analyst at NewVectors, a wholly owned subsidiary of TechTeam Government Solutions, which helped develop the wizard and directory.

The growth in agencies’ use of the directory has been slow, Hetzner said. However, agencies that use the products and services directory have improved their 508 compliance, he said, adding that “there has been some slight change or increase in 508 awareness and activity among agencies.”

One government official familiar with the 508 requirements said the updated wizard could be helpful, but it has limitations. “You should be able to use the directory list without going through the entire wizard process,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

“If they would do that, more people would use it.”

Weaver said she has heard that complaint before and plans to bring it up to an advisory board. “We want to make sure people will do their due diligence,” she said. “What people have to understand is this [directory] is not a list of approved products but a list of companies diligent in telling us how to meet 508 requirements.”

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