A more efficient path to online accessibility

Karen Evans explains why a global accessibility standard is in everyone's interest -- and why agency CIOs should help push for it.

Karen S. Evans

(Image: Karen S. Evans / Center for Internet Security)

The role of federal CIOs includes a multitude of critical responsibilities—compliance, procurement, records management, privacy and security, as well as bringing mission-supporting technology to the workforce and citizens they serve. To deliver on these core obligations, CIOs must ensure that the services they manage are accessible to all, including users with disabilities.

Throughout my 28-year career in government, our commitment to accessibility for all users was unwavering. Yet the alphabet soup of accessibility requirements is complex, and slows the ability to provide services that meet the latest standards. Promoting a global accessibility standard will reduce friction between competing standards and create a more efficient path to accessibility, both in the U.S. and abroad.  

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act seeks to ensure that all of the federal government’s electronic and information technology is accessible to persons with disabilities. It governs any technology the federal government develops, procures, maintains or uses. Harmonizing our accessibility requirements, specifically the U.S. Access Board’s Proposed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines (proposed rule), with the similar European Standard, ETSI EN 301 549, will improve accessibility. It will create a global standard, minimizing conflicting interpretations and market confusion, while also providing cost savings for governments, consumers and industry.

Updating policy for the global stage

The need to harmonize U.S. and European policies is a product of the growing international influence of, and increased accommodation for, those with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was adopted in 1986. The international regulatory climate was far different in 1986 than today—for instance, this was seven years before the establishment of the European Union. It is time we adjust our policies to reflect the need for strong international standards and to meet the evolving needs of today’s federal technology landscape.

The European Standard went through a rigorous approval process and was developed using recommendations from the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee. This international committee, founded by the U.S. Access Board, influenced both the European Standard and the U.S. Access Board’s proposed rule. The two accessibility standards are closely aligned and seek the same functional outcomes. Yet despite the similarities, there is still room for confusion. And in my experience, all it takes are minor differences to increase disparities between interpretation and execution in the ICT community.

Our global presence

Now that the U.S. Access Board’s proposed rule to refresh Section 508 has cleared its 90-day public comment period, the federal government should consider its global reach and user base. The Department of Homeland Security and State, for example, are just two of the many U.S. government entities with a global presence. Harmonizing our accessibility standards with the European Standard will ensure that our outposts abroad are outfitted with ICT infrastructure and services that are fully compatible with local accessibility requirements.  

As our world becomes more connected, a universal standard is not only sensible, but also efficient. In fact, current law and Office and Management and Budget rulemaking support the adoption of such standards: the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 and OMB Circular A-119 Revised mandate the incorporation of voluntary consensus standards as domestic standards where possible. The use of consensus standards in place of unique standards, unless illegal or impractical, not only makes maintaining these standards easier for public sector CIOs and federal government employees, but makes accessing information for users with disabilities easier as well.

A call to action

The harmonization of the U.S. proposed rule and the European Standard will greatly benefit those who need better ICT accessibility. As the U.S. Access Board’s proposed rule moves into a review stage, it is critical that federal CIOs and citizens alike support accessibility for all by calling for much-needed global harmony. With updates to its proposed rule, the U.S. Access Board can facilitate the creation of a global accessibility standard, ensuring that government employees, citizens with disabilities, and others all over the world can have computing experiences free of barriers and limitations.

The harmonization of standards creates an opportunity for everyone. Most important, it benefits users with disabilities who need and deserve accessible technology. 

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