It always seems that there is some new, urgent, fix-it-yesterday mandate that federal agencies can’t meet without the help of consultants and outsourcers. And vendors historically have had trouble complying with new Federal Acquisition Guidelines.

This time it’s compliance with the requirements of Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. You say that I’m a year late suggesting this? Well you’re partially correct, as reported last April by TechRepublic. Congress mandated that agency office equipment and Web sites be made accessible to workers and the public by August 7, 2000.

But despite having 10 years since President Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act to purchase adaptive technology and build compliant Web sites, federal agencies asked for and were given an extension to June 21, 2001.

Whether you advise or work with federal agencies directly, or you contract with vendors to supply hardware and software to those agencies, you need to pay attention to the new Section 508 Guidelines from the General Services Administration (GSA), as they will undoubtedly affect your business.

Learn more about Section 508

The Federal IT Accessibility Initiative site is a good place to begin learning about the new requirements. Here are some highlights of what the initiative provides for:

  • Software guides that allow visually impaired users to access programs and operating systems.
  • The use of alternative and ergonomic keyboards for those with motor impairments and to prevent repetitive stress injuries.
  • Retraining to use keyboard shortcuts or replacing the mouse for those with limited use of their hands.
  • Web sites must meet guidelines for use with screen readers.
  • Kiosks, copiers, printers, calculators, fax machines, and other peripherals must include special access features for disabled workers.

What’s the holdup?
There’s actually a pretty good excuse for the deadline extension. The problem was that the Access Board needed longer to develop accessibility guidelines that weren’t actually promulgated until December 21, 2000. Thus, it’s understandable that some federal agencies are behind the curve on this one, but no matter what the cause, panic is now setting in once again at federal agencies.

Practically speaking, it’s too late to begin to open lines of communication with federal agencies now if they actually expect to meet the July 1 deadline. But any consultant who has existing contacts would be well advised to check to see if there is any money available for emergency action in cleaning up Web sites.

But that’s just the start. After June of this year, both existing and new contracts to supply EIT (Electronic and Information Technology) to about half of all federal offices will have to meet accessibility requirements. Only about half are affected because a number of departments are exempt, at least for the time being, including a lot of the military and intelligence divisions and back-office technicians.

The GSA recently released the final Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs), which regulate agency purchases and offer selling guidelines for vendors. These regulations apply to contracts awarded beginning 60 days from publication in the Federal Register. That means you must follow them for any contract awarded on or after June 25, 2001. GSA guidelines include information about which sales and purchases are exempt from the regulations. But to find technical details about how to comply with specific products, it’s helpful to read the detailed recommendations from the Access Board.

What should I do?
Here are some suggestions for complying with the new rules and for landing federal contracts in the future:

  • Hire a few disabled computer consultants. There’s nothing as valuable as showing that you really understand the problems agencies face, and making your own office accessible is a great place to start.
  • Show clients how to take advantage of accessibility tools they already have, such as MouseKeys and StickyKeys, which come included with Microsoft products.
  • Institute sensitivity training for your sales and consulting staff.
  • Develop a database of accessibility products along with expertise in installing and using them.
  • Use a specialist subcontractor with experience in implementing technology for the disabled.
  • Be prepared to offer alternative input and output devices for standard computer configurations. Often, all that’s needed is an ergonomic keyboard or a touchpad in place of a mouse. Be prepared to subcontract complex items such as Braille output to specialists.
  • Make your Web site accessible. If you can’t do that, how can you expect to be hired to do it for someone else?
  • Take advantage of the skills you develop working to help meet Section 508 requirements by expanding your business offerings to include technology for the disabled. More and more companies are facing legal action over failure to meet ADA requirements, which are similar to those posed by 508.
  • If you can find a copy, read my book—Computers and the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Manager’s Guide to Adaptive Office Technology (Windcrest-McGraw Hill, 1993)—for more detail on this subject.