1999 Conference Proceedings

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Section 508 Should You Care?

Douglas Wakefield
Telecommunications Specialist
U.S. Access Board
Washington, DC 20004

Introduction

On August 7, 1998, President Clinton signed the Workforce Investment Act. Contained in that piece of legislation were new regulations concerning access to Federal electronic and information technology by people with disabilities. Commonly Referred to as Section 508, these regulations apply to electronic and information technology purchased, developed, maintained or used by the Federal Government.

In plain English, Section 508 aims to provide Federal employees with disabilities access to office systems and information equal to their non-disabled colleagues, and to assure that people in the general public who have disabilities, have equal access to Government information.

Should you care?--Your not a Federal employee and you really never had any intention of reading Federal documents on the trade deficit or land erosion in the high plains. Will these new regulation effect you? The answer is a resounding yes! The Section 508 regulations have the potential for being as important for assuring access to the information age, as the Architectural Barriers Act, were for access to the constructed environment for people with disabilities. To understand the importance of Section 508, looking at two factors is necessary.

First, the Federal government as a consumer of electronic and information technology. Second, the Federal Government as a dispenser of information. As a consumer, the Federal government is the largest single purchaser of information technology in the U.S. This fact means that as a customer, the government has market clout unequaled by any other single purchasing entity. Therefore, if accessibility features are incorporated into a Federal purchase of, lets say 500 million dollars, putting those features into a product suddenly becomes very worthwhile for a manufacturer. Once the product is available with access features, even if original intended to satisfy the requirements of a Federal purchase, it becomes available to any buyer. In brief, the Federal government is a large enough customer that it's purchases can shape future product development.

The new standards also address the issues surrounding accessibility of the Internet in as much as it applies to the Federal governments use of the Internet. More and more Federal agencies are using the Internet as a means of communicating with their particular customers. For example, the Social Security Administration maintains an Internet site that provides access not only to an agency produced pamphlets, brochures, and handbooks, but also to applications that allow an individual to request a printout of his or her own future social security benefits. Other Federally maintained sites that are popular Internet locations include, the Library of Congress, the National Weather Bureau, the IRS, and many other sites that provide useful often vital information to individuals, including individuals with disabilities. According to Section 508, these Internet sites must provide access for people with disabilities equal to the access enjoyed by non disabled citizens.

A touch of history--The concept that the Federal government should keep the access needs of people with disabilities in mind when purchasing information technology is not new. The first access act of this type was passed in 1986 as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. At that time, the issue was access to office equipment. However, until the 1998 legislation concerning access to equipment or information only established "guidelines." Guidelines offer guidance. They are not standards and they are not enforceable. Standards are enforceable and can set a framework for redress, if the standards are violated.

Current happenings--On August 7, the 508 regulations became law. The legislation charged the Access Board with the development of these standards. To accomplish this task, the Board appointed an advisory committee. On October 15, the First meeting of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee was held. That committee was charged with the development of functional and performance standards for electronic and information technology necessary to assure accessibility to that technology.

The Access Board anticipates that the standards, developed by the committee and reviewed by Federal Agencies, will be posted for public comment in the spring of 1999. Once the comment period has ended, the Access Board will develop final standards that will be incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulations of all Federal agencies.

Conclusion

When completed the access standards for electronic and information technology are to be followed by all Federal agencies. In turn, this means that producing accessible systems to sell to the Federal market becomes an economically viable option for companies. It is hoped that this in turn will increase the availability of more accessible products and services to all consumers.


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