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Technology for the disabled: What does federal law mean for IT?

Later this year, federal agencies will be required to make technology accessible to workers with disabilities. This legislation means big changes for the IT industry. Here's a look at some of the key issues.


At last month’s FOSE conference in Washington, D.C.—the largest gathering for government IT workers—U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno told attendees that 75 percent of the 30 million adults with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. And at the same time, many of the nation’s high-tech jobs go unfilled.

Fortunately, a law going into effect later this year calls for federal agencies to make technology accessible to workers with disabilities.

The legislation spells big changes for federal IT, as well as IT vendors who deliver products and services to the government. And further down the road, private companies will be affected. Here’s what the experts have to say.

A Section 508 overview
Section 508, an amendment to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, requires that all federal agencies develop, procure, maintain and use software and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities, both federal employees and private citizens. The legislation is based on recommendations by the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee of the U.S. Access Board , and federal agencies must comply by Aug. 7, 2000.

Technologies covered under Section 508 include software and Web-enabled applications, Web sites, telecommunications functions, video and multimedia products, information kiosks, and transaction machines.

Provisions in the law state that built-in assistive technology is required only when needed; therefore, an office with no disabled workers would not be required to make special purchases. Exceptions to the law include national security and instances in which it would cause undue burden.
Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 applies to people with:
  • Visual disabilities—blindness, low vision, and lack of color perception
  • Hearing disabilities—hard of hearing, deafness
  • Physical disabilities—limited strength, reach or manipulation, tremor, lack of sensation
  • Speech disabilities
  • Language, learning, or cognitive disabilities—reading, thinking, remembering, or sequencing disabilities
  • Other disabilities such as epilepsy or short stature

How people with disabilities use technology
While it may seem like a tall order for federal agencies, Section 508 will open doors to the world of IT for people with disabilities, where there was little offered to them in the past.

Blind people can use computers equipped with screen readers, large captioning with audio, Braille output, and speech output. Tech telephones will allow the deaf to receive incoming calls. For an individual with one arm, computer use could be enabled with a one-handed keyboard. For someone with limited sight, a large-key keyboard or large print on a monitor could do the trick. A repeat-delay keyboard could help a worker who experiences hand shakes or tremors.

Doug Wakefield, an accessibility specialist with the U.S. Access Board, points out that impaired vision poses one of the most challenging variables to using information because in general, computers communicate visually. As a visually impaired federal employee, he’ll benefit from the implementation of Section 508. He currently uses a PC that is loaded with sound keys created by Microsoft, IBM, AT&T, and Lernout & Hauspie. The computer prompts him with a spoken word when it’s time to enter a command. He said the new legislation will help thousands of individuals like him.

“This is really an exciting time for all of us, for information specialists who are trying to do the right thing, but also for people with disabilities,” Wakefield said.

Which technologies fit the category?
Wakefield added that in order to ease compliance with Section 508 in the future, software purchased for general use should be “consistent, well-programmed, and predictable.” He recommends a normal Windows application programming interface because “nobody tries to write around them or breaks them.”

Microsoft has been a leader in the assistive technology market, offering products such as screen enlargers and screen reviewers, keyboard enhancement systems, and voice-input aids. Other assistive products sold by Microsoft include on-screen keyboards—which allow users to select keys using a pointing method, such as pointing devices, switches, or Morse-code input systems; and alternative input devices—which allow individuals to control their computers through eye-gaze pointing devices and sip-and-puff systems controlled by breathing.

A number of other vendors have introduced assistive technology to the marketplace.

Adobe recently announced that it will partner with Microsoft and others to bring its Portable Document Format (PDF)—which has become the industry standard—into the accessibility environment. New technology to allow screen readers to recognize PDF format, and Adobe’s latest versions of FrameMaker and GoLive are equipped with accessibility functions. IBM’s ViaVoice and Telcordia Technologies’ Orator II Speech Synthesizer are speech recognition products developed for the general public, but they also work well for the visually impaired.

More time needed to comply
The Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Commission has ordered a May 30, 2000, deadline for representatives from the IT industry and federal agencies to issue formal comments on the standards.

Unfortunately for those who intend to submit comments, the proposed standards were issued March 30 of this year—more than a year later than expected—which allowed little time for comment.

This chain of events means the IT industry has been unable to offer products that are accessible under official standards, and many federal agencies are delaying procurements because they are unsure their purchase will be in compliance.

The Information Technology Association of America has asked Congress to extend the Aug. 7, 2000, deadline to give the necessary lead-time the original law intended. ITAA president, Harris Miller, noted that once the standards are finalized, it will take eight months to a year before companies can reasonably be expected to have products and services compliant.

“Companies can’t build hypothetical standards. They need to know the true standards; otherwise, the process enters the legal arena,” Miller said. “The ‘without undue burden’ clause also needs to be fleshed out more than it has [been] to this point.”

Melanie Warful, a developer with Adobe, said Section 508 presents a challenge to the IT vendors who supply to the federal government.

“We’ve had little time to review recommendations,” she said. “From a technology perspective, we have a targeted time to release products. We have target dates and requirements we have to meet. Technology companies may not be 100 percent compliant by Aug. 7. There will be some products that won’t ship until later. It will make it difficult for government IT to be in compliance.”

What Section 508 means to vendors, private sector
While Section 508 applies only to federal agencies at this point, experts say private industry should be gearing up to make technology accessible for disabled workers and customers.

Advocates for the disabled hope that the upcoming guidelines for making government Web sites accessible to people with disabilities will also serve as a model for commercial sites. They are waiting anxiously to see what the courts say about a federal lawsuit against America Online—brought by disabled plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind—alleging that AOL should change its software to work with Braille or audio translation tools.

While the lawsuit is an isolated incident at this point, Miller said IT managers should be researching assistive technology products that are currently available.

“You have to be thinking about it because you don’t want to be in an awkward situation where you want to hire somebody who has a physical disability but you can’t because your PCs aren’t going to work for them. That’s not going to be a very good excuse, legally or media-wise,” he said. “But at the same time, the products have to be as generic as possible. They shouldn’t become so cost-prohibitive that big corporations can’t afford them, let alone small private businesses.”

The recommendations by the Electronic and Information Technology Access Committee include some suggestions for the private sector. This will bring the IT marketplace up to speed with what the Justice Department believes are the correct choices to make their systems more accessible in the most cost-effective manner.

In the meantime, experts advise that IT workers at federal agencies and vendors who sell to them should make Section 508 one of the foremost issues on their agendas over the next few years. As Attorney General Reno told attendees at last month's FOSE show, agencies should ensure that products are accessible before they buy or lease them.

“Federal technology personnel, EEO officers, procurement managers, and the disabled should begin talking to one another about assistive technology and accessibility,” she said. “We recommend that the General Services Administration and the Access Board establish a federal hotline where people can seek answers to their accessibility questions."

Miller said the ITAA is working hard to ensure that vendors fully understand Section 508.

“Until recently, there was a head-in-the-sand issue among companies,” he said. “We’ve been banging the drum loudly and they’re starting to realize that if they’re selling to the federal marketplace, they have to understand this legislation.”
Does your company sell goods and services to a government agency? Are you in compliance with Section 508? Do you believe the timeline for compliance is reasonable? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have a story idea you’d like to share, drop us a note.

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