New IT accessibility regulations could come next week

The U.S. Access Board on Monday appeared to be headed for a vote in favor of new rules designed to help disabled citizens access government information via technology.

A vote count of mail-in ballots from board members Monday was not complete as of Monday afternoon, but it was clear that the rules would pass, according to Doug Wakefield, accessibility specialist at the Access Board. "I don't expect any hitches," Wakefield said.

The rules must receive final approval from the Office of Management and Budget after the vote, but Wakefield said the office already has signed off on the regulation. OMB looks at the cost implications of the rules to ensure they are within budget.

Details of the long-delayed rules, which are required under Section 508 of the 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, will not be made public until they are published in the Federal Register in the next week or two, Wakefield said.

The Access Board is tasked with developing guidelines to make both the brick-and-mortar and online worlds accessible to the disabled. Under the so-called Section 508 rules, which seek to close the "disability divide," companies that contract for government technology jobs would have to make government computers, software, hardware, Web sites, fax machines and other information sources more accessible to people with visual and other impairments.

An example is a computer touch screen, which can be difficult for a person with poor vision or a trembling hand to operate. Such screens also do not respond to the touch of a prosthetic hand. The new rules would require government contractors to structure government technology to compensate for such needs. Section 508 would not apply to the private sector in general.

The total cost to business and government to meet the regulations is estimated at $85 million to $600 million, but the Access Board believes industry would benefit from them over time because a commercial market would develop for the technologies they develop under government contract. Advocates of the new rules also say they would reduce worker compensation costs.

Twelve federal officials at the assistant secretary level and 13 members of the public appointed by the president were to cast ballots on the Section 508 rules.

The rules have been anticipated for months, as authorities worked them into final form. The proposed rules were published March 31, and the comment period ended May 30.

The final rules are significantly different from the previous version, and Wakefield said, "The changes are bound to upset some people on both sides of the issue." That is the spirit of compromise, he noted.

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