2000 Conference Proceedings

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Section 508 In Action: Making Sense Of The Impact Of Changes In Federal Accessibility Requirements

Dinah F. B. Cohen, Director
Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program
Department of Defense
5111 Leesburg Pike, Suite 810
Falls Church, VA 22041
Phone: 703-681-3976 (Voice/TTY)
FAX: 703-681-9075

Changes in the information environment have presented new opportunities and challenges for people with disabilities. In the new millennium, we have the opportunity to take advantage of these changes and put new energy behind the regulations that outline an accessible electronic and information technology environment.

On August 7, 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, a part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments requires that when Federal departments or agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, they shall ensure that the electronic and information technology allows Federal employees with disabilities to have access and use of information and data that is comparable to the access an use of information and data by nondisabled Federal employees, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency. Section 508 also requires that individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency, have access to and use of information comparable to that of nondisabled individuals. The recent changes to Section 508 were designed to strengthen the current law, including the establishment of an enforcement mechanism to ensure Federal agencies comply with the accessibility guidelines.

As technology increases independence for people with disabilities, it also poses a threat as becoming a major barrier. Like the telephone, designed for deaf people but used by hearing people, information technology and its global impact may have a similar outcome. Section 508 can begin a process that turns the information age into an inclusive club where people with disabilities will truly benefit from the process that is currently underway to strengthen compliance in order to create new and more accessible products. Section 508, as written in the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, has the ability to create a second wave in the disability rights movement.

The most impressive aspect of the recent amendments to Section 508 is that it confers a private right of action. Individual complaints can be heard, corrective action by Federal departments or agencies can be required, and cases can be taken to court if the administrative processes fail. Section 508 strengthens individual rights and lets individuals combine charges under various sections of the Rehabilitation Act and other laws to assure full access and full usability of electronic and information technology. The Federal government has used Section 508 to close another loophole in its own system to increase opportunities for people with disabilities. Section 508, through the standards establishment and enforcement process, will enhance civil rights of people with disabilities in the United States.

Section 508, as part of the Rehabilitation Act, is an intriguing and well-planned portion of an expanse of Federal laws, regulations, and guidelines. The goals of the disability rights movement, including equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency, will not be realized as long as public policy does not promote employment of people with disabilities. Section 508, focused on the current and future barriers towards employment of people with disabilities, will showcase the Federal government’s struggle to create actual increases in the employment statistics of Federal employees with disabilities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 will indirectly be affected by the outcomes of this Federal initiative to become a model employer of people with disabilities. With the weight of a nation’s economic, social, and spiritual differences, Section 508 has an opportunity to influence every disability policy and program decision throughout American society. Section 508 has the potential to be another wave in the disability rights movement born with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The presentation will focus on Section 508 from the user standpoint and how we can use it as a tool to ensure employment and access opportunities for people with disabilities. It will also focus on the methods to inform users of the assistive technology available for users who are deaf, have visual, dexterity and cognitive disabilities. Access to the assistive technology and accessibility initiatives via technology centers and the web will also be highlighted.

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Changes in the Political Environment

Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities

Changes in the Information Environment

Section 508 Overview
Access to Assistive Technology
AT Centers
AT Equipment
Universal Design and Ergonomics
Using the Emerging Technology to Access Information
WWW, CD-ROMs, Distance Learning
Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program
Access Board’s Technical Assistance Program

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