Reno urges access for disabled federal workers

klunney@govexec.com

Attorney General Janet Reno Tuesday encouraged federal agencies to provide more assistive technology to federal employees with disabilities, as a deadline for doing so draws near.

Reno, a keynote speaker at FOSE 2000, a government technology trade show held in Washington this week, discussed the importance of understanding and implementing the 1998 amendments to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law requires agencies to ensure that federal employees with disabilities have the same access to information and computers enjoyed by federal employees without disabilities, assuming doing so would not cause an undue burden on an agency.

The law also gives the federal government until Aug. 7 to comply. After that date, employees can file complaints against agencies if new technology purchases or agency Web sites don't comply with accessibility standards.

Reno praised the efforts in assistive technology made by some agencies, most notably the Defense Department, the Education Department, the Social Security Administration, and the General Services Administration (GSA). However, she said many agencies still need to provide more accessible Web sites and establish alternative dispute resolution policies for people with disabilities as an alternative to litigating problems with access.

The Justice Department presented a report to President Clinton this month on accessibility of information technology to people with disabilities. In the report, the department urges technology specialists and experts on disabilities to work together.

"The most significant challenge posed by section 508 is the need for coordination between those with technical expertise and those with knowledge of disability access issues," the report said.

The employment rate for people with disabilities in the United States has not kept pace with the boom in assistive technology, Reno said. Seventy-five percent of Americans with significant disabilities are unemployed, according to the Census Bureau. Overall, one in ten Americans has a severe disability.

"We can create a better work environment for the federal government," said Reno, adding that "accessible design is good design" and emphasizing that making technology accessible to everyone will promote inclusion, efficiency, and productivity.

But the Information Technology Association of America on Tuesday urged Congress to extend the Aug. 7 deadline for compliance. The association said agencies and technology contractors need more time to comply-particularly because the rulemaking process for accessibility standards has not yet been completed.

GSA is hosting the Federal 508 Pavilion at FOSE, showcasing the accessibility programs of the Departments of Education, Defense, Agriculture, and the Census Bureau, among others.

FOSE continues through Thursday at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center.

The Justice Department's report, "Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility," can be found on the agency's Web site at www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/report/content.htm.

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